They devour on camel stomachs whilst the camels are still alive, sleeping. They actively attack humans and run in 50 km/h. Soldiers in the Middle East fear them, and you should too.
“It’s very, very dangerous!” The man spoke as he saw it. “That’s why you should not camp in silent areas. Keep yourself to busy places, with people!”
The border crossing into Iran wasn’t too difficult, although for sure more comprehensive than those before. Once I had left the Armenian border guards, the first thing The Iranian guards asked as I entered was:
“Do you have any alcohol?” The answer was a simple and honest no. Drinking alcohol in Iran as you may know, is forbidden and may lead to prison. At the next station I had to respond to various questions which were filled into a form on the computer by another official, such as: “What’s your job? Destinations in Iran?” and “Are you married?” I was not sure what the correct answer to this last question would be, and I mumbled reluctantly as I replied “No.”
“Are you married?” The official repeated in a stricter tone as the word had barely even left my lips. I hesitated a little more, and then I raised my voice louder this time.
“NO.” He nodded and continued to fill in the form: “Father’s name? Birth place?” and so on. Once the form was completed, I had to detach all my panniers from the bicycle to be x-rayed. And then… I was in.
Welcome to the Islamic Republic of Iran the sign read.
I found the nature sceneries in Iran to be most beautiful in the border areas of Armenia and Turkmenistan
First thing I did was to exchange 50 USD to Iranian Real at one of the money exchange booths and then I was off; Constantly adjusting my scarf in the wind and nervously tiptoeing around as if I were walking on glass, scared to break any rules and be reported to officials.
The first few days I really was being careful. Since it was Ramadan, I didn’t eat openly at the road but always hid behind hills – which sometimes meant a whole day would pass until I actually found a convenient place to hide, or simply wouldn’t eat until I set camp.
As the days passed however, I got more relaxed and didn’t focus so much on the rules anymore since I learnt the authorities were less strict on foreigners. Just like most Iranian girls I let my scarf show a lot of hair (a police commented on this once but that’s all), I ate openly at the roadside (although still never in the cities) and I felt more at ease in general.
On my second day in Iran, when heading into the city of Marand to buy food before setting camp, I was pulled over by a bus. Out of the bus stepped a man and without a word he handed me his phone.
“Hello?” I spoke into the phone, being all used to be given someone’s phone by now.
“Hello my name is…” I didn’t hear. “I want to meet you!” It was a girl speaking, but that’s pretty much all she said before I was supposed to hand the phone back to her father again. The man just pointed into the city center. I had no idea exactly where I would find this girl, but I trusted that if she really wanted to see me she would find me. The city wasn’t crowded by girls on bicycles after all so it shouldn’t be so hard to pick the right one…
And I was right. Just about one km from there, a girl rushed forth and stopped me. She seemed to be around my own age, and immediately shook my hand with great excitement.
“My name is Nastrine. I am so happy to see you! I love foreigners and I love to practice English!!”
Already in the city of Jolfa which I passed the first day, a lot of people – especially women – had greeted me with a cheerful: “Welcome to Iran!” And that’s one thing I really liked about Iran. I had never had so many women speaking to me before – in Europe it pretty much never happened.
Many people would give me melons which was awesome but… you have no idea how heavy they are!
I spoke with Nastrine for a while until I judged it was really time for me to get going and look for camp, and she had to attend her university class as well.
The traffic in Marand – which still isn’t big compared to cities like Tabriz, Mashhad, and Tehran – shocked me and I felt quite startled when maneuvering my way through it, constantly dodging another car nearly hitting me. And I didn’t get far.
I was just about to exit the city riding up a hill, when I was once again pulled over by a car. Nastrine ran out of it, with her mother by her side.
“I want to talk more to you, so I skipped my class!” She gasped between her breaths, “When I told my mother about you she asked why I didn’t invite you over for dinner!? Please stay with us tonight!”
My initial plan had been to ride further that day, but how could I say no to my first invitation in Iran?
Before I was guided back to Nastrine’s house however, Akbar found me!
Akbar is a legend among cyclists, and has hosted hundreds of us throughout the year. He knows many truck drivers in Marand which means that whenever one sees a cyclist, they call Akbar. He is well-known to appear out of nowhere, and in my case that was true as well.
All of a sudden, he was standing behind me and I jumped a little as he greeted me:
“Hello I am Akbar from Warmshowers, do you know me?”
And after a little chat with Akbar I took off to Nastrine’s house.
I had a great time with Nastrine’s family that evening and was served lots of delicious food and water melon. None of her relatives could speak English so she had to speak for all of them, back and forth.
Nastrine is the girl to the furthest left in the picture. She had no siblings, the other kids are her cousins. The adults made me guess the age of all of them… I hate that game but I managed surprisingly well!
“When I told my parents I wanted to study English at the university they didn’t understand at all, of what use would that be?” Nastrine said, “But I love it. I think English is the language of the world. I want to speak with people, I want to learn about other countries and cultures!”
Bonus: A big-haired, red-faced me in the photo. It’s not uncommon that the people you stay with will ask you to take off your scarf in their house to be comfortable. Before the relatives left they all learnt the one English phrase “nice to meet you” and lined up to shake my hand 😀
Nastrine really was eager to learn. Whenever I spoke a word she didn’t understand she immediately looked it up in a dictionary on her phone. When I asked Nastrine where she would like to travel she said with big, glittering eyes: “Every counry! Any country! All of the countries!” Later on that evening, when her aunts and uncles had gone home and her parents had gone to sleep and we were left alone in the living room she told me one more thing. She was holding back tears in her eyes as she said:
“You are lucky because you can travel. My parents won’t even let me go to the park with friends. I cannot go anywhere without them.”
Nastrine was a couple of years older than me and she wanted to see the world. But she wasn’t even allowed to spend time with friends outside of the house. The only way for her to be put off her parents’ leash is to marry. It saddened me so much to hear this, and I told her I wished I could kidnap her to show her Europe.
Mosque in Tabriz, probably the Iranian city I Iiked most. Neyshabur was really nice too though
Already in my next city, Tabriz, I befriended another girl my age. Her name was Neda and she was the only girl I met in Iran riding a bicycle (not counting those who would only bike in the park in Tehran and not on the streets). She and her fiance took me to a big mall to help me with my errands and afterwards I was invited to have lunch with Neda and her family. They were all very curious about Sweden and asked me many questions regarding politics, economics, the job situation for young people, and so on.
Neda and her father, a respected leather shoe-maker
“In Iran everybody is a doctor or engineer”, Neda’s big brother said, “but only a few have jobs!” Both Neda and her brother were civil engineers, and it is indeed true that most people in Iran are highly educated, both men and women.
After Tabriz I did a few nights of wild camping. On my fourth night however, I got a little too brave. There was no good place to hide what so ever, and when asking a few farmers for permission to camp on their land I got turned down. It was all dark by the time I judged it decent enough to pitch the tent next to the ruins of a house behind which I thought I’d be hidden from the road.
When picking the best spot for my tent, I suddenly detected movement on the ground. At first, I thought it was a scorpion running next to my feet. But it in fact appeared to be a huge spider. Even though it did make my spine crawl a little, I just had to run get my camera and take a few close up photos of it… As I then turned my head I realized I had another huge spider just a few inches away from my face, on the wall behind me. When pitching my tent, a third one came running at my stuff and I chased it away by stamping my feet hard to the ground; Thinking it got to look so damn funny with this big monster chasing a being a hundred times smaller than her. On one hand, I found these spiders beautiful, and on the other one, I really didn’t want them to get inside my tent, haha.
The camel spiders’ nest
By the time my tent was pitched at 11 pm I still hadn’t had a single meal that day – and yet I had ridden nearly 160 km. I was just about to organize my cooking stuff, when two men on motor bikes found my tent. I quickly unlit my head torch as I heard their voices and pretended that I was asleep, but the men just wouldn’t give up on it. They kept shouting outside my tent and circling around it with the motor bikes to lure me out. I gave in.
“What do you want?” I asked, “I need to sleep.”
“Too dangerous for you here”, they said, “you can’t stay.”
“Please sir”, I responded, “I am so tired… I need to sleep… please let me sleep.” They kept on insisting it was too dangerous for me, and I kept on pleading the opposite. At last, they left. At least that’s what I thought. But an hour later or so, one of the men came back. Through an English speaking guy in the phone, he told me I couldn’t stay there and that I had to come to his house instead. I still hadn’t had any dinner, but I realized that I better did as I was told.
Drinking tea at the porch at night. Note the grapes hanging from the ceiling!
By 1 am, I was finally at his house and he left me in the hands of his wife. Since it was Ramadan, the family stayed up late snacking on biscuits and tea and I joined them for a bit until I was finally excused to go to bed, all exhausted. Oh and not to mention that I had had to walk across the whole house and garden all naked wrapped in my towel since I had forgotten my clothes in the panniers (the dirty ones were taken to the washing machine already).. And the women in that house were all wearing chadors (like a burqa but showing their faces), oops!
It stormed a lot each night in Iran so I was desperate to seek shelter from the wind… never worked out so well haha
The next morning, I showed my photos of the spiders to some locals and they got terrified. “It’s a very dangerous spider! You cannot sleep in the wild. You must sleep in busy places with humans.” I found this logic plain stupid and I still do. But arguing against it was pointless so I shut my mouth. As I read more into this spider however, I found it was not actually a spider.
They are arachnids, and their Latin name is solifugae, which means those who flee from the sun. It appears they have ten legs, but in fact they only got eight since the two other ones are just sensory organs. Their main territory is the Middle Eastern deserts and the myths about them have been spread around by soldiers throughout history; They eat on humans in their sleep, grow as large as half the size of us and jump two vertical meters.
But this is not quite true. In fact they are not dangerous to humans what so ever (ok so maybe if you choke on one in your sleep I guess…), and their bite is not venomous. They feed on small lizards, birds and rodents – but certainly not on camels and humans. And they do not attack humans… although since they do seek shadow and flee the sun, it is likely that they will run after you to get to be in your shadow. What can I say, the more I read into these creatures the more fascinated I get… Anyhow let’s move on.
This donkey was so very curious on me and my tent one morning
Next I was heading to Tehran, the capital, to pick up my Turkmen visa and once on the road I was all of a sudden pulled over by a car. The guy stepping out of the car definitely looked Scandinavian, and I got this confirmed as he asked:
“Pratar du svenska?” (Do you speak Swedish?)
It turned out he was a cyclist too and that the Iranian man driving the car had told him and his girlfriend that “Your friend is in great danger! Really exhausted and dying, you must come help her!” and hence the guy had come with the Iranian man in the car. Well first of all, we had never seen each other before, and secondly, I wasn’t dying at all. It took us a few minutes to convince the Iranian man that I was fine however, and that I was good to go on my own. I ran into Robin and his girlfriend Ida once more when riding into the city of Qazvin in which they took a few days off, their final destination being Australia.
Thank you, I feel most weel com to Davarzan! 😀
“You simply don’t bike into Tehran. You take a bus, or taxi. That’s what our son did.” This is what the couple in Växjö whose son had biked to Iran had told me back in Sweden. Despite the warnings about the mad traffic, I decided to give it a shot still, telling myself that: “If it seems too bad I’ll just hop on a bus.” In other words, if I get hit by a car I guess I’ll just take an ambulance into the city centre.
I’m not sure what I disliked more about Tehran. The traffic chaos or the polluted air. I have never in my life breathed so bad air before, and that combined with the heat smudging onto my face like a heavy, smelly mask combined with constantly dodging another car nearly hitting me just made this day one of the worst.
Honestly the only photo I took of Tehran
In the city, I did not only pick up my Turkmen visa which I had already applied for and gotten approved by the embassy in Ankara, but also met up with two other cyclists. Michael from Australia and Jaimi from England, both riding the Pamir highway right now. Together we went to the one spot in Tehran in which the air is actually breathable: The city park. In here, you will forget all about the chaos in the city and enjoy fresh air and shadow under the tree canopies. Also, you might see a few girls riding their bicycles – you are not very likely to see this elsewhere. Whilst we enjoyed bread and fruit for lunch, an Iranian man curiously approached us and asked us where we were from. We decided to be from Iceland. After having answered a hand full of questions about Iceland (we had to play our cards well because this guy knew a lot about all countries in the world) it was our turn to ask questions about Iran. Now with this guy, we didn’t need to worry. We could ask just about anything we wanted. And we did.
“So what’s up with you and Israel and USA?”
“Most Iranian people don’t mind Israelis and Americans. But our government does to claim support to Palestina, since the government thinks we should support our brothers, muslims.”
“But you are Shia muslims and they are Sunni muslims. How is your relation with Sunni muslims? Why is there a conflict between you in the first place?”
“Yes, they are Sunni muslims,which is still better – according to my government – than people with different beliefs, such as Jews.” To us, this hardly made any sense since he also told us about the bad relationship between Iran and for instance, Saudi Arabia, due to the fact that Saudi Arabia are Sunni and not Shia. “The government supports the minority of Shia muslims in Saudi Arabia, and hence opposes the Sunni government. My government also supports Assad, president of Syria, since he is a Shia muslim – though most of the people in Syria are Sunni muslims. These two branches of Islam were caused by a conflict after prophet Mohammad’s death – who should be the new leader after him.”
Moving on to the next question.
“What happens if a woman takes off her hijab?”
“If she keeps doing it despite the officials’ warnings, she risks jail.”
“What about sports? Can women do sports and swim publically?”
“Volley Ball is really popular amongst women – in fact the Iranian team are world champions! They are also excellent at shooting. But football for instance, is not very acceptable. And no, they cannot swim publically unless they wear special swimming suits covering their whole bodies (we saw these in a shop earlier – they look like wet suits).”
“What happens if you get caught drinking alcohol or doing drugs?”
“Alcohol leads to jail. If you are caught with 20 g of drugs or more, you will be executed by hanging.”
“But people still drink and do drugs?”
“Yes, but never on the street. We brew our own alcohol and drink it in our homes or at underground parties. As for drugs however, it’s mainly common among those in the poor parts of Tehran.”
Not the most clever idea to bring our bicycles through the crowded bazaar
I found the capital to be more liberal than other cities in Iran. For instance, I was surprised to see so many people eat openly on the street even though it was still Ramadan. In addition, just like in Tabriz most women would cheat as much as possible with the dress code; Wearing their scarves so that only the hair in the neck was covered and dressing in tight tunics showing off curves. As I went east of Tehran however, it was not as commonly seen and women would not show much hair.
Also my troubles with men got worse. Before Tehran, it only happened a few times. After Tehran, it became a daily issue. Once a bunch of guys wanted selfies with me (just like any Iranian, expect to feel like a Hollywood-star if going to Iran on a bicycle) and then they blocked my path when I wanted to leave and grabbed my boobs and ass. They gave me no chance for revenge as they ran into their car next like cowardly rabbits. Another time a man gave me cherries and then out of nowhere, his hand was on my tit. I slapped his face and spit in it. And men like these kept harassing me. But the more it kept going, the better I got at detecting these bad ones; The better I got at dodging their hands, at running away before they even got the chance to stretch their hands out for me.
But one was one level worse than the others.
On the whole Iranians are the most generous people you will ever meet. If you go biking here, expect to receive free food, drinks and invitations to people’s homes every day.
So one of those things I’ve learnt from this trip is that – especially if travelling alone – it’s crucial to make a first impression of someone. Of course, still keep your mind open to let that person prove you wrong – but goddamn it, prejudices or not, make a first impression of whoever you meet.
I hated this man from first sight. He hadn’t spoken a word to me, but from the moment I spotted him looking at me I hated him still.
For 15 km, he kept following me on his motor bike and the whole thing reminded me way too much of the man back in Turkey. The alarm bells in my stomach rang: Dangerous! Dangerous! Get away from him! As he was a few hundred meters ahead of me, I decided to take a break next to the road side, hoping he would continue still.
All of a sudden he appeared next to me, asking for water. What. The.. Fuck? Dude, you’re on a motorbike and got half an hour’s ride to the next town with water – whilst I, a cyclist, got a whole day’s ride to the next town with water and you’re still begging me for it!? In the end, I gave him a bottle hoping I would get rid of him. And that might just be the biggest regret of this trip so far. As soon as the water touched his lips he spit it out. Ungrateful bitch.
“Yeah what did you expect!? Of course the water is hot, it’s fucking hot outside man!” And that’s probably when I started to provoke him.
He tried to grab my body, and I jumped aside. It kept going for a while, until I finally managed to make him leave with words I probably shouldn’t have said.
After a few minutes, he was back again. I was just going to push my bike up the hill to the road again, but he blocked my path.
“Out of my way”, I demanded between gritted teeth, “Out. Of. My. Way!”
That’s when he pulled a knife against me.
I acted by reflex, and did just the same as I do when dogs attack me; Shielding myself with my bike to make a distance between us as he approached me with the knife. He then tried to stab my wheel instead and I dodged. There was no doubt he was a strong man, but way too clumsy in his movements and I dodged each time as I jumped from one side to the other, dangerously dancing next to the roadside. He however managed to get hold of my solar cell charger that had been strapped onto the dry bag.
It was clear that his intention wasn’t to steal from me – he simply wanted me to follow him down the hill, where we weren’t going to be visible from the road. But I wasn’t that stupid. Since he had given me a few meters of space by now, I took my chance to drop the bike to the ground and run to the opposite.
And then I was standing in the middle of the road where cars go in 110 km/h and trucks in 100. I was waving frenetically with my arms in the air like a castaway on an island, but the trucks just honked furiously at me and passed. Well fuck.
I was desperate to stop someone, and I gave the next car only two options. To run over me, or to stop for me. At last, it slowed down and stopped.
I was relieved to see a woman and her baby in the passenger seat, but by the time they stepped out of the car my attacker had of course already slipped down the knife into his pocket again. The couple didn’t speak English, and began talking to the man instead. I have no idea what they told each other, but I can imagine the man said: “There is no problem at all. It’s all a mistake, this girl got upset for nothing”, and it angered me even more. At least, the man gave me my solar cell charger back and I was on my bike again. The man passed me on his motorbike waving me goodbye with a grin and I gave him my middle finger even though of course, that’s just what he wanted: To provoke me. Luckily, I never saw him again. It simply ended as quickly as it had started.
Mashhad is regarded as Iran’s “capital of religion” – thousands of people come here to see the holy shrine of emam Reza which is supposed to bring luck and success. As a woman you will have to wear the chador if visiting it, I regret not to.
The next day, I was once again surrounded by a bunch of guys on motor bikes.
“Sex with Irani? Sex with Irani?” They said as they stretched their hands out.
“Sex with Swede? 1000 USD please.” I replied but those dumbasses didn’t get it. They vanished quite quickly however, and in the next moment I was pulled over by another police car. Damn, what now?
“I am a police officer. There has been a report that you were troubled by men”, the police man explained and continued, “you cannot bike further. It’s dangerous for you. You’ll have to come with us in the car.”
“I want to bike sir”, was my single reply. In fact it wasn’t quite the truth. I was tired by the time. Tired of battling extreme headwind day after day making me go 8 km/h on the flats, tired of keeping my guards up and constantly watching my back. But it wasn’t only my childish principles to bike every inch of this trip that kept me insisting to ride, it was also that one thing that the police officer said.
“You cannot bike”, he repeated, “It is not normal for women to bike in this country. You have to come with us.”
“That’s why I have to bike, sir. If I and more women bike we can make it normal.”
“I will bike today, sir.” I repeated and at last they let me go. Still though, I didn’t quite get the logic. Oh, so women get harassed in Iran if riding bicycles? That means we gotta stop women from biking!! Errr, hold on. Doesn’t that mean we should support women riding bicycles even further and go after those who harass them? And I wonder: Did the police men try at all to find those guys who harassed me? Or did they go straight after the girl who did nothing wrong to tell her she can’t ride her bicycle? I MEAN DID IT EVER OCCUR TO YOU THAT MAYBE YOU NEED TO CHANGE YOUR FUCKING SYSTEM. Damn I got frustrated by this strange mentality.
And it obviously wasn’t the first time I got frustrated by the police. Once they caught me riding in the dark, and stopped me immediately:
“Forbidden to drive in the dark.” So why are you not stopping the cars? I resisted the urge to speak it out loud. I told them I was going to camp but you see wild camping doesn’t quite exist in Iran. If you tell a person you’re going to camp, they will immediately assume you’re going to one of those crowded parks in the city center pitching your tent on tarmac. I tried this once and it definitely wasn’t for me – I had families keeping me awake until 2 am with shouts and laughter and the kids of other families waking me up at 4 am running around my tent. And the police was no different.
“Camping in the city, 25 km away.”
To most Iranians this seems to be the only reasonable way to do camping. Well at least I had a cute visitor in my tent when I tried it…
At last I managed to convince the police that it was indeed safe for me to camp on the ground of a resting place (there are various “resting places” next to the roads in Iran, varying widely in quality). At least that’s what I thought.
Beautiful views – camping in a gravel pit once after getting my fourth flat of the day and just telling myself: “That’s it. I’m setting camp, right here on spot.”
I was finally preparing dinner at 11 pm, when I heard voices outside and spotted the blue light from a police car… Sigh, what now? I walked straight out to the police men and began questioning them.
A typical resting place next to the roadside. If you’re lucky you can obtain water and food here. If you’re less lucky there is nothing but an empty building
“What are you doing? Why don’t you leave me alone? I am perfectly safe here!” And they kept going on how dangerous it was with all the snakes and spiders and that they had changed their minds, I couldn’t sleep there after all. I was on the urge of exploding.
“You are wrong. It is not dangerous and if you excuse me… sir, I will go to bed now. Good night!” And I turned my back to the police men and went back to my tent. They kept calling on me and I didn’t respond, pretending to sleep. At last when it had been silent for more than an hour, I finally dared to come out and pee (I had held it the whole day!!) before getting a few hours of sleep. Luckily they had given up on the Swede, and didn’t come back. Ironically Iran is the country I have wild camped in the most (oh except for Tajikistan maybe). I guess the reason may be that I had to be so social in the day, that I just wanted some peace in the evening and maybe get lucky enough to spot the camel spider – which I did more than once.
Needless to say I grew tired of the police and some men in Iran but still I spent my last days in the country heading to the Turkmen border feeling quite happy. I kept receiving food and greetings from nice people and the nature was beautiful with reddish rock formations similar to those in Cappadocia. And I enjoyed one last night in my sanctuary; The steppe.
By the time my tent was pitched on the steppe far away from any road I knew I was safe. For I was in the lands of those who flee the sun, where dangerous beings dare not go.