- Georgia to Tehran (Iran)
- 19 June 2016 – 20 July 2016
- Highest mountain pass – Vardenyats pass – 2,410m elevation
- hottest temperature – 48c – Kashan
- Nights hospitality offered offered in a row from strangers -25-Iran (of course)
Georgia & Armenia
After feeling a sense of relief leaving Turkey I was excited to get into a new country…unfortunately with time pressures from onward visas I only got to spend two days in Georgia so have very little experience of the country…but after being in Turkey during Ramadan it was amazing to see food during the day again 🐽 Firstly I noticed how poor the villages were…they were filled with wooden shacks, manual farm machinery and very boney cows. The people continued to be as friendly and as nosey as they were in Turkey and there was a new alphabet to contend with…which I completely ignored! The first city we arrived at, Akhalkalaki…had no ATM’s anywhere…nowhere accepted card payments…and there were no supermarkets…just small convenience like stores with nothing much in…this is when I realised things are going to start changing…goodbye to many modern western conveniences!
The only night spent camping in Georgia was not a peaceful one…we met a French cyclist along the way and decided to camp in an abandoned building…protecting us from the rain and wind. During the night I was awoken by the sound of a heavily revving engine and lights on my tent…I didn’t get out and after about half an hour or so the vehicle left. I eventually fell back to sleep and a couple of hours later I was awoken again by bright lights flashing on my tent and long continuous beeps of a car horn…I was a bit nervous but knew I had to get out…luckily it was just the police…someone had reported seeing my tent…they checked I was ok then left!
Neither one of the other two others I was camping with even showed face and a lesson I’ve come to learn travelling is…men are not braver, more courageous or less scared than females…I don’t know why I ever thought they were. In fact (in my experience) they are worse, especially considering they face less problems on the road than a solo female. The few weeks I had cycled with Mike he would always leave me behind to deal with packs of savage dogs, weird men and one time he even used me as a decoy when we got trapped in a park by a bunch of teenagers with water bombs…while I headed out the front gate followed by the kids he snuck out the back gate like a massive 🐱!
The next morning we began to head south towards Armenia and it was freezing. The Turks had warned me about the Armenians…they have a long history of conflict…but I knew to take this with a pinch of salt…neighbouring countries or sometimes even towns tell you the next place you’re heading is ‘dangerous’. The border control were friendl, smiling and welcoming me to Armenia! As we headed south it started to get warmer and I began to really love Armenia…the people were really friendly but not as insistent and pushy as many people had been in Turkey and women were much more visible, independent and free to wear what they wanted…which made me feel more comfortable. In Turkey I sometimes felt uncomfortable in small towns and villages as the streets were dominated by males and women were mostly shuffling about shyly in headscarfs and very modest clothing!
Many cars kept stopping by me and doing this weird thing of flicking their throats and making a strange noise…I thought they were threatening me at first but soon realised they wanted me to take a shot of vodka with them🚗🚵🍻. The vodka culture is big in the caucuses and at least 2-3 times per day I was stopped on the road to have a shot…many times before lunch…I mainly refused but sometimes they were so insistent I thought it was just easier and politer to join in…but one always turns in to at least three or four and I hated it! One night looking for somewhere to camp I was ushered into a restaurant with a bunch of people having a private party to join them for food and of course vodka. I couldn’t speak Georgian or Russian to their disappointment but they communicated with me by shouting out names and putting thumbs up or down…they really do not like David Cameron or Barrak Obama but love Putin and Beckham 😂 I was in there about 30 minutes had too many shots even though I tried to refuse and when I got up to leave I was all over the shop…couldn’t walk in a straight line and was pretty drunk setting my tent up in the pitch black in amongst some random shrubs…it was awful and I vowed not to accept another shot again…but the very next day i did…it’s impossible to refuse 😂
On the way to Yerevan we took a detour to check out a couple of Armenian monasteries and I was literally kidnapped by a crazy,over friendly, super loud Armenian family who put a medal around my neck, sat me down, forced all sorts of cakes and pastries down my throat along with more shots of vodka and kept constantly cheering and patting me on the back…it was a weird experience…but nice to meet such friendly people.
We continued south to Yerevan (the capital) and I was pleasantly surprised by how nice the city was…it had a European feel to it. I decided I wanted to cycle solo again for a bit so ended up hanging around the city for the day and checking out the genocide museum…which of course was outside the city at the top of an absolute bitch of a hill🙄! I’d never even heard about the genocide of the Armenian people by the Turks…it is recognised internationally but the Turks refuse to recognise it and there is still great bitterness between the two countries…hence why the border between the two countries is still closed. There is a lot of political tension in this area especially since the breakup of the Soviet Union and there is a lot of disputed territories and areas you’re not allowed to go. After my first night of paid accommodation since Italy 3 months earlier I cycled south towards the mountains and the sun was out again ☺️
The landscape started changing as I headed into the mountains and I could see mount Ararat (the site of Noah’s Arc) covered in snow on the Turkey/Armenia border. I love the mountains but the climbs were long and the gradients were unforgiving…but as always…the views and the peacefulness made the slog more than worth it! Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before I caught up with Mike…we were, after all, heading in the same direction but I had wanted to go solo for a bit…the majority of the time I got on with him pretty well but he was really moody and I had grown totally sick of him in Armenia 😴. The cycling over the next few days was hard…Armenia was sooooooo hilly and we had a strong headwind for four days which made progress slow and I started to get frustrated at cycling downhill in easiest gear only managing 12km/hour.
As we got to the top of the final pass before dropping down to the border of Iran we met two other cyclists…half British, half Australian coming the opposite way…from Iran…they’d had all there money stolen in Tehran and with the sanctions imposed on Iran from the US and Britain it’s impossible to withdraw money in Iran and they had to leave as soon as possible! Charlie (the girl) gave me a headscarf and a few tips about Iran and I began to feel a little apprehensive as we were only a day or so off the border. The landscape in the south of Armenia was amazing and I’d say for sure it is one of my favourite countries I have cycled in so far and I wished I could’ve stayed longer…but the time had come to see if I would get into Iran!
I have so much to say/share about my month in Iran that I will have to split it into two blogs! The country is culturally and historically amazing but the theocratic rule and political restrictions on the freedom of the people make it by far the most interesting place I have ever visited. If you look beyond the largely inaccurate stereotypes you can see the country and its people for what it is rather than what it’s depicted to be. Like everywhere…you find the good, the bad and the ugly…and never has this statement been more fitting! First though, I’ll start with the good…
Heading towards the border I felt excited but much less at ease than other border crossings…would I get in? Would they let me travel solo? If so, what the hell would this country have in store for me? How would I deal with Ramadan? Wtf do I do with this headscarf…it’s going to be hot as shit! I put on my hijab as I entered no mans land and my nervous anticipation of will I, won’t I get through was soon at an end as I passed through border and customs relatively easily with just a few questions and bag checks…phewwww I’m in…shit, I’m actually in Iran! The words of all the people (all of which had never been) who knew I was planning to go began to flood into the forefront of my mind…”are you crazy, it’s so dangerous, you will get killed”. As I exited border control and hopped back on the bike the intense heat hit me like an invincible wall…oh my god…it was so hot…I was covered from head to toe in this ridiculous attempt at chador…I couldn’t eat or drink in public…I’m not going to get killed, but I am going to die!
The green landscape of Armenia was traded for yellowy, brown, flat dullness and my concern for respecting Ramadan meant I was making a huge effort to hide any time I wanted to take a sip of water (this soon wore off)! The Iranian hospitality is the main thing I will always remember about Iran…from day one people stopped me to take photos, gave me more food and water than I could carry…honked their horns, waved, smiled and shouted ‘welcome to Iran’…and I never once had to pay for accommodation in my 28 days in the country…constant invites into people’s homes meant I spent the nights with locals! Hospitality and kindness in Iran are ingrained deeply into the culture and are displayed to a degree that can drive you absolutely insane…it sounds bad but honestly…sometimes it’s completely overwhelming and you just want to be left alone…it can get way too intense🤔.
On our second day in Iran as we were cycling into Marand…we were flagged down as became common by another welcoming Iranian…this time he was on a bike…his name was Akbar and he said he had been waiting for us! I was cyclist no. 788…yes…this man had hosted 788 cyclist in the past 5 years…incredible! He had been informed by several wagon drivers that we were on our way…he gets them to call ahead and let him know a cyclist is en route!
Riding into Tehran was incredible…a city of 16 million people…I remember my ride into Istanbul and thinking…wow…but that pails in comparison to Tehran! It’s chaos…the sheer amount of traffic…the scooters…and no one really caring about the rules of the road make for an extremely fun and intense way to enter the city! I ended up spending much more time than anticipated in the capital…for reasons I’ll get to in my next blog on the darker side of Iran…but for now I’ll stick to the good…of which there was more than plenty!
Even in a city as large as Tehran it’s almost unimaginable to believe the amount of hospitality I received and it’s crazy how these things that seem so bizzare at first just kinda become the norm…and nothing really took me by surprise anymore! It was sometimes hard not to take the constant kindness and generosity for granted…after you’ve been invited to stay the night with local people 15-20 days in a row, stopped on the road for the third time that day to be given food or water or given the phone numbers of strangers in the street and asked countless times if there is anything you need… it can be difficult not to take it for granted or feel slowed down instead of realising how lucky I was to be receiving such kindness from strangers! Everyone wanted a photo or to practice their English with me and it really was amazing but there was an overwhelming part of me that just wanted to be left alone!
In Tehran I did some boring visa stuff and met a lot of amazing people…alcohol and mixed sex gatherings are illegal in Iran and punishable by jail sentences and lashing…but believe me…there’s a huge underground scene in Tehran that I was lucky enough to get a glimpse of! While waiting for my visas to get processed I took a bus to visit Isfahan and Shiraz…public transport is super cheap and the buses are amazing…it was around £10 for an 8 hour journey on a vip bus…including a drink and snacks!
As usual it wasn’t hard to find a host and I stayed with the most incredibly kind and generous family I’ve ever met! It’s amazing how people that don’t have a lot are happy to share everything they have with you! They let me stay for three nights in their home and treated me like royalty from the minute I got there…giving up the room they usually all slept in to let me sleep in there! They made me amazing food and showed me around their local area in a car the whole family shared (mother, father, five children and three grandchildren)! They were extremely religious and after spending a lot of time in Tehran with many secular people hearing about all the negative aspects of religion I was extremely grateful to spend some time with devoutly religious people…which clarified what I already kind of knew…there’s an equal amount of amazing and kind religious people as there is non religious people and there’s also a smaller but equal number of religious and non religious arseholes!
I was so glad I didn’t cycle South to Isfahan…it was 45 degrees…I was sweating like fack and I was uncomfortable most of the time and looked forward everyday to the sunset! It was an incredible place and I loved spending time with Muhammad and his family…although one night when eating dinner together…Persian style (always on the floor of the living room…kinda like picnic style)…I was the last to realise the crotch of my pants had completely split open and the super religious family, who all wore full chador even in the house, were much more embarrassed about it than I wasn’t…I was taken aside discretely and passed a pair of tracksuit bottoms 😂 I was extremely grateful to Muhammad and his family and will never forget how genuinely big their hearts were!
Back in Tehran a few days later I was delighted to find out I’d been successful with all my visa applications…anyone that has been through Central Asia knows what a complete pain in the ass it is to get these visas…but I had a clean sweep now right through to SE Asia…the celebrations would last one day…but I’ll save that for part two of iran!
I will end this blog on a more positive note ☺️ yet again another amazing display of hospitality…again another 2 minute conversation, this time on public transport, led to an invite to stay in the home of Mahta, a teacher in Tehran…I owe a huge thank you to her and her family for inviting me into their home and going above and beyond to help out a complete feckless stranger (me ☺️) figure out the beauracratic bulshit of the immigration and law enforcement in Iran and make sure I got to the airport on time for my flight! I spent two days in their family home and made a great friend in Mahta!
One of many things I will take away from my visit to Iran is the bond I was able to make with many of the women there…they were so nice to me they seemed to feel a sense of trust and openness towards me…they could tell me things they wouldn’t dare tell their family or friends for fear of judgement, disapproval and humiliation and it was an interesting and emotional insight into a world so far removed from my own. Many women were tired of their position in society and tired of their treatment from the opposite sex and now more than ever…I began to relate to that!