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On the road . April 2007 . Turkey and Iran

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Internet Cafe, Fethiye, Turkey 04-04-07

Mountains and minarets
Muğla to Doğubayazıt
(5 cycle days; 3 rest days; 2 bus trips; 357km; 3991m)

Muğla to Köyceğiz (64km; 445m)
Köyceğiz to Fethiye (78km; 1025m)
Fethiye to Kinik (70km; 1489m)
Kinik to Korkuteli (89km; 802m)
Korkuteli to Antalya (55km; 230m)
Antalya to Göreme (by bus)
Göreme to Doğubayazıt (by bus)

Turkey in general

The trip is tough, but we take it easy: stopping regularly to recuperate from the hill climbing and take in water due to the gloriously warm day. The views are rugged and natural and we are surprised at the sheer ruralness of Turkey. Every little village has several corner stores selling exactly the same thing and a mosque. The shops are cheap but very limited. Fresh fruit and vegetables are hard to come by, except from local farmers on the side of the road or by asking at restaurants.

Alternatively, you'll never ever want for bread in this country. It must produce millions of loaves everyday and I wonder how they ever get to sell it all. Maybe, that's why the chickens appear so well looked after. Automatic teller machines dish out 50 lira notes that are impossible to change. No-one ever has small cash on them and the guesthouses constantly ask us if we can pay up front for our room. What is more, they are not at all embarrassed to say it is because they have no money. The availability of currency in winter is virtually non-existent. But then again, if I see how many men are gambling on the horses, maybe this could count for the money-flow problem. Raki, in contrast and surprisingly so for a Muslim country, flows pretty freely.

On the way to Köyceğiz (64km;445m), we bump into a couple of Tasmanian guys, Jon & Sean of Cycopaths, cycling in the other direction. We chat briefly with them before continuing towards our nightly destination: Tango Pansiyon. its a ususal routine of unpacking, showering and then venturing ou and this time to discover quite a beautiful township that obviously profits very well during peak season. I'm not so sure I'd like to be here then. The Istanbul pide shop on a side street off the main thoroughfare serves delicious food at affordable prices and is really worth a visit.

Nearly kills me
It is such a strange journey today. At 11am we stop to eat by the road sign that says 57 kilometres to Fethiye. Normally that would take us a few hours. Today however, it is nearly double that as we arrive five and a half hours later; both beat after totally energy zapping climbing. I'd actually want to pack it in and find a camp spot after 50 or so kilometres but there is nothing here and we don't have any supplies for overnighting in the bush. I really never expected the climbing to be so full-on. It nearly kills me.

The day is topped off with a monster hill that stops me in my tracks while trying to find a guesthouse in Fethiye (78km; 1025m). Ali goes up the hill, while I wait behind, but there is no sign of life at Tan Pension, so we opt for Ideal Pension, which has a friendly and most hospitable owner who is working hard to build his reputation after one bad review in the Lonely Planet. The views over the lake are magnificent from the roof-top restaurant and we can appreciate the atmosphere that would exist in this pension at the height of season. At the moment though, it is dead.

We spend a day of rest and plan the next journey, deciding to take the inland route. Hopefully, there will be better camping opportunities and it is over a 1300 metre pass. Taking it easy, we should be in Antalya in approximately three days time.

snowy views from wild camp near Korkuteli

Sabah Pansyion [website], Antalya, Turkey 07-04-07
Take it easy, my ankle!
It is overcast and we ride through the occasional sprinkling of rain. We left without breakfast today, partly because the girl who serves it is so lethargic and it takes her half an hour to put everything on the table, which is a total waste of half an hour and because the breakfast isn't exactly worth waiting for anyway. The plan is to stop along the roadside somewhere and end up pulling into a favourite rest stop in Turkey: the service station. They are all amazingly modern and have spanking new restaurants attached, as well as toilets and mini-markets conveniences. Nearly all of them sell bread at local prices. Petrol on the other hand is disproportionately expensive at 2.90 lira per litre for 95 unleaded.

While eating our monster bread roll filled with cheese, tomato, cucumber and mayonnaise, another cyclist pulls in. Nasir, is on his way back to Istanbul, where he will have completed his cycle tour around the Turkish border. From what we could understand, it took him one month. His bike is built for racing and there's minimal luggage, but that's still pretty quick in anyone's book. And he's not the youngest of men either. He points to his thighs and says "very strong". I believe him, considering the terrain we have encountered so far.

The day picks up and so do the inclines. At one stage we stop for an orange - nature's own heavenly designed energy-thirst quencher - and look behind to see a sign boasting 9 kilometres of 10% decline. No wonder I was zapped. The rest of the day was climbing, sweating; climbing, pushing my bike; climbing, waving back at all the friendly motorists; climbing and some more sweating as well as a heck of a lot of puffing. Ali, myself and one determined ankle manage to push ourselves over the 1300 metre pass at 16.14pm.

You don't have to worry about water in Turkey. There are an abundance of stops along the roadside, generally in the middle of nowhere, with fresh, clear, mountain cold refreshment to fill your water bottles and thirsty mouth with. Most of these concrete blocks either have a prayer room upstairs and toilet facilities. As you might expect, you need to carry your own toilet paper nearly everywhere you go in Turkey.

From the top, we happily drop into outstretched farming fields below. We are chased by a herding dog, who comes out of nowhere and whose owners sheepishly hide behind the safety of a parked car until the kafuffle is over. The animal is stunned immediately by our latest purchase: the dog dazer. We still had to stop on this ocassion, but after a few zaps, the dog didin't want to get close to us anymore. We had enough time for the getaway. The only word of warning is it doesn't work so well on old dogs. A few kilometres on and we find a flat grassed area 100 metres from the highway and pitch tent just before Kinik (70km; 1489m). We are both impressed with today's innings and while there was not much of a possibility to take it easy, it appears my ankle is not going to give up the ghost after all.

Never trust a map
We cycle through another mostly overcast day. From our map, we envisage much of a downhill journey, apart from a 40-50 metre climb within the first 10 kilometers. That can't be too strenous now can it? As most cyclists already know, maps lie and unfortunately we have to traverse a further 802 metres of altitude taking us to the unreferenced height of 1607 metres. Just a minor detail to leave off a map.

The landscape makes up for the aching limbs. Rugged rock faces completely surround us: either blue metal mounds and granite quarries to magnificent iron coloured gorges rising high into the air. We find ourselves dropping suddenly into contrasting valleys of luscious green crops. Deciding to pick up a few supplies, we camp on a hill close to the highway 10kms after Korkuteli (89km; 802m). It is a little rocky in these parts, but we find a small green patch perfectly created for the shape of our tent. The cold takes over, the tent is zippered and despite the busy road right next to our ears, we sleep like logs.

Snowy views from a sunny coast
We have surely got to go down today: Antalya is only 50 kilometres away and we are still sitting on 1400 or so metres. After a few hills, of no where near the intensity of the previous days, we plummet elatedly down the mountain. We cant resist stopping to buy a huge bag of fresh peanuts, before gliding past a monumental city entrance and into the sprawling metropolis of Antalya (55km; 230m). The mountains to the right of us are as rugged from this angle as when we were cycling through them yesterday. It is an awesome view looking up at the same snowy peaks that we could see from our tent the night before.

The city looks incredibly modern and has a very relaxed atmosphere. A six lane highway complete with bike-friendly shoulder, a couple of fairy floss carts moving against traffic is separated by a well manicured median strip. The road is super smooth and total bliss after the roller-coaster ride on poorly laid gravel that we just left behind.

We find Kaleiçi, the old quarters of town, relatively easy but the roadwork along the side streets prevents us from riding directly to Sabah Pansyion. After a few detours, we make it to a sunny guesthouse terrace just beckoning us to sit down and drink a cold beer. There are a few tasks to complete before this pleasure though.

Firstly, we are welcomed into a friendly family-run pension and led upstairs to the cleanest, lightest and airiest room we have had to date. It feels like home immediately. So, while I construct a make-shift laundry and scrub our clothing clean in our private bathroom, Ali goes on an adventure trying to find a Sony Service Centre to clean the dust bunnies from our Sony Cyber shot lens again!

Dust bunnies in view - another Sony affair
There is a Sony shop in town, which he first visits. They send him on to a service centre in the neighbourhood. He can't find it for love or money and after querying in several shops he was still none the wiser. He is ushered around by shopkeepers and receptionists alike until he finally ends up in a real estate agent. Here, they have the common sense to ring the business he is looking for. Shortly after, a young boy turns up to usher him 10 minutes up the road to the Sony Centre's new premises, which is not mentioned on their web site yet.

They can't do anything to fix the camera and say it needs to be sent it to their affiliate shop and we can come back in 2-3 days to see what the verdict is. Ali doesn't like that plan and decides to go to this shop himself. A taxi is called for and after a 10 lira ride, he listens to Sony Service Technicians tell him that he needs a new lens. According to this man they are burn spots, which is a total load of polly-waffle. Even if it was the case, a replacement lens can't be arranged for at least 10 days because it needs to be shipped from Belgium. The only other option is to clean the lens which they offer to do for 80 lira. Ali barters it down to 40 lira, but forking out any money still smarts since it is the second time in 5 months, but there is no other choice at this point in time.

So let it be known that the €350 Sony Cybershot has been the biggest disappointment of all our purchases. It is clearly, not up to the hauls of travel and the service centres are not well-versed on the problems of dust-bunnies. An afternoon on internet will bring them up to scratch on the topic, not to mention the moans and groans of digital camera owners right across the globe. We simply can't afford the inconvenience nor the cost of having this camera regularly cleaned. Otherwise, by the time we get to Australia we will have bought the camera twice over and the problem won't be rectified. L

Now looking for a replacement and it won't be a Sony.

The world is small after all
The next morning, we look out over the balcony and who should be sitting there, eating their breakfast, but John and Linda: a couple we met in Selçuk. Needless to say, conversations started where they had previously left off. It was great fun to meet up with them again and share travel experiences and just get to know one and other better. After a second chance meeting, I'm pretty sure we'll keep in touch. They went out to Lara Beach for the day, while we pottered around the town and researched which camera we might like to buy and we now have our eyes on the Olympus E-400. Any comments reviews from users?

Lining the roadside in Turkey are restaurants selling gözleme. Get into a city and this gourmet delight seems a little more difficult to find, but well worth it if you do. It is basically a griddled pancake filled with anything from spinach and feta to spicy aubergine and potato and is not only absolutely delicious but sheer entertainment to watch being made. We find a small restaurant in the back streets of the city, which makes our day.

Visa System
Our bus tickets have been booked for the following evening when we will travel on to Göreme. A 12 hour ride and tickets cost 33 lira per person for the bus company plus a back handed fiver per bike made payable to the driver only. Visa's for Central Asia are beginning to dictate our travel plans for the next few months and the catch-22 of the whole system is a little frustrating. this is my attempt to make head and tail of it here:

In order to get into Turkmenistan - our country after Iran - you need your Uzbekistan visa - second port of call after Iran. This will not be issued without a letter of invitation [LOI], which is easy enough to buy for 30 euros each from a travel agent. The LOI must state your entry and exit date into Uzbekistan and takes 14 days to issue. We only have 30 days in Iran and once we cross the border, we will need to get to Tehran - 900 kilometres away - within a certain period so that we still have enough time to apply for the above visas and get out of the country as well.

We are now in Antalya and have to envisage when we will be at the Iranian border, assuming that we will get a 5 day transit visa for Turkmenistan and then it is obvious mathematics, in order to give the exit and entry dates to the company issuing our LOI. But basically we are sewn up for the next two and half months. And anyone who has travelled by bike before will tell you, it is rather difficult to say exactly where you are going to be, so far in advance. So, realistically, unless the riding is easy, we foresee a couple of bus and train trips in the future.

goreme carpet sales in turkey

Firouzeh Hotel [website], Tehran, Iran 27-04-07
Off to a land of fairy chimneys and more carpets
Our bus trip to Göreme isn't that bad except for the usual freaking out by the bus driver and steward when we rock up with bikes and ten bags of luggage. Most prominent during the hands in air discussion, that lasts a lot longer than the packing process itself, is the word "problemi", but we have heard it enough times before to know that it is all part of the procedure and the bikes and gear will eventually make it onto the bus without jeopardizing anyone else's luggage space and all will be honkey dory. It is just getting to that final stage is usually a bit frustrating and the way of doing things here can be very pushy and often appear quite rude.

The first stages of the journey are pretty steep and the road condition is really bad. We go through the usual bus routine. Water is dished out just out of the bus terminal, then tea or coffee followed closely by the traditional squirt of lemon eau de cologne in the hands to freshen you up. The bus aisle gets several spirts of air freshener too. As soon as the rose scent has wafted through the air and blended with the lemon cologne, the movie starts. Dvd's are seldom seen in Turkey. Currently, it is a world of vcd's over here, which means movies are on two separate discs. This has one major drawback.

After getting the gist of a Turkish dubbed Hollywood block buster it reaches the halfway point and then stops; in the middle of a sentence - not that that affects us too much. This break coincides nicely with the first pittstop. So, as soon as everyone has had their cup of tea, paid the man 50 kurus for sitting in the little window box outside the toilet block and then braved the inside, we all pile back on the bus for a quick head count. The bus is well and truly rolling down the road by now and we anxiously await the second half of the film. The smelly lemon stuff comes out again, and the lights go off. To our dismay, this is not setting the mood for the second half of the movie at all. It is actually Turkish bedtime. NOthing else to do but fall asleep too.

We wake the next morning, to an unanticipated changeover of buses 13 kilometres before the destination. The new bus driver appears quite irritated by the interruption to his usual routine and drives like a maniac through the winding valley roads of Cappadocia, to make up for lost time. Our thoughts are on the extraordinary views. I don't think there is anything quite like this anywhere else on our planet and we both can't wait to do a bit of exploring around the area.

We unload in Göreme and make our way up to Rock Valley Pension where we are attacked by a protective mother of three young pups. The Dog Dazer does not work on her at all. Either she is deaf as a doornail or the whole mother thing has led her to believe she is invincible. Personally, I would bet on the latter and it is probably another shortcoming of the dazer. Needless to say, with snapping teeth on your tail, we cautiously but quickly wheel our bikes to the pension. The room is just amazing: modern, clean and tasteful and it has even got a bath. We decide to eat some breakfast in the common room with almond blossom views of cave homes. Then it is on the bikes for a tour around. Everywhere you look, there is a different and more spectacular shot and one could go totally snap happy in a place like this.

Back in our room, after the usual dinner of pide and salad, which we are getting a little bored with, we lie on the bed discussing the fact that it is a bit early to go to sleep. It obviously doesn't mean too much though, because within a few minutes we are floating into dreamland.

The following day starts with a deliciously filling Turkish breakfast, followed by helping one of the owners register Rock Valley Pension on Tripadvisor. We then catch a couple of local buses to one of the underground cities in the region and although entry is 10 lira, is definitely a must if you come to Cappadocia. The labyrinth system, which dates back as far as 2000BC is amazingly unique and Ali had a great time crawling into every nook, cranny and accessible tunnel; light or no light. I took it a bit easier than him, due to the uneven ground and a still somewhat apprehensive ankle.

The wheels on the bus go round and round, up and down, side to side and all over the place really
Our bus leaves for Van at 8.00pm and we get to the bus station at 7.30pm. We have been told it is a 13 hour trip in all, with a changeover and an hour and half wait in Kayseri. This will mean we arrive at 9.00 the next morning and we plan to cycle on as far as we can past Lake Van, camp somewhere for the night and then continue on into Doğubayazıt the next day; a total of 170 odd kilometres. The bus arrives at 8.20 something pm and the usual "problemi" can be heard muttering from the stewards lips.

The bikes fit in ok though and we are off like a rocket to Kayseri, 70 kilometres up the road. It takes a good hour and we go to pick up our tickets only to learn that the trip to Van takes 14 hours. Our whole itinerary goes out the window, as this means an arrival of 12.30pm the next day. Still, there's not much we can do and have to wait until tomorrow to see what the roads, weather and other conditions are like.

We wait along with a few others until almost 10.30pm for our bus at bay 16 as instructed, but it doesn't arrive. An official looking man finally shows up and beckons with "you, come". We are then ushered across the bus station to the highway and have to board an already packed bus from another company. The steward this time is a pleasant older man, who picks up my bike as though it weighs nothing. Everything is done with haste and in the dark, so while Ali deals with the packing side, I check that all the luggage goes in. We get in and start our very long journey at 10.40pm. Definitely too late for a film tonight, I reckon.

By the next morning, everyone that had been on the bus prior to our boarding looks completely frazzled and we wonder where the earth it had started from. Some kind of hell journey through the whole country no doubt. All the women and one very frail old man wearing a mask have been throwing up the whole way and the ambience and smell are less than pleasant. Tension is released after stopping in a village for a breakfast of simit: tasty oversized bagels with sesame seeds and a typical Turkish in between snack or meal accompaniment.

I had seen little of the road during the night but had certainly felt it. Ali said that in certain parts there wasn't a road at all. Apart from a couple of cities in the early stages of the trip, villages quite often only have cobbles or mud paths. The bus swerves from one side of the road to the other to avoid potholes and the general impression is that the east of Turkey is extensively more rural. Houses and lifestyle match equally. That is, except for the sky dishes on the most rickety of homes and the latest fandangle mobile telephone hanging from the ear of the humblest of characters.

 ishak pasa in dogubayazit, eastern turkey

Bus Relay to Doğubayazıt
We make it to Tatvan and the bus does a u-turn which causes us a bit of confusion. Isn't Van is the other way? It dawns on Ali, who has been following the journey closely on his photocopied map, that we are going to Ercis first; a complete circumnavigation of Lake Van. Ercis is closer to Doğubayazıt than Van and we can save a lot of time by getting off there.

Without mentioning the rain we've encountered, the amount of snow on our trail, Ali also discovers a 2600 metre pass on the way. So, we are quite relieved that the bus steward seems to think we can continue on further with the ticket we've got. In hindsight, he must have been agreeing to something else, because when we disembark, unload all the gear, beat off the crowds of curious locals and proceed with trying to find a bus to Doğubayazıt, we meet with some unwelcome information.

As soon as our bikes are stuffed into the front seat of a minibus - the only transport in the direction of Doğubayazıt - we discover we can't use the same ticket and we not only have to pay for ourselves but double for the bikes. To top the bad news off with some more disappointment, the minibus only goes as far as Çaldiran and there we need to find another a second minibform of trasport and pay a further 40 lira.

We decide we have no other option than to pay up and see what time we arrive in Çaldiran. There, we can decide if we either bus it or try and bike it up the rest of the pass and onto our destination. The whole ordeal was not particularly pleasant though: the scenario reminds me of the Monty Python skit with the philosophers on a football pitch minus the funny bits. This time though, the scene is set with a group of Kurdish men in a parking bay. They wander around forming little discussion groups, talking very loudly, throwing arms around and about and then breaking off and joining up somewhere else. Everyone seems to know what is going on except Ali and I.

It is well after 12:30pm when we arrive. While we are taking the bikes out of their snug positions and are discussing whether we could ride the 70 kilometers and 600 altitude meters left to reach the mountain pass, it begins to hail. That does it and there are no hesitations finding a bus. But we both swear solemnly that this is the last time, if we can possibly help it. The minibus driver must know the roads pretty well considering the speed that he travels at. Looking at the metres of snow everywhere and what begins to fall adding more to the roadside piles, we are glad we opted for the easy way out. The pass doesn't seem too steep, but then again, it never does from the comfort of a vehicle seat. A checkpoint at close proximity to Iraq is controlled by very stern and tough looking military boys carrying guns almost as big as themselves.

Doğubayazıt is so very far from modern: cobbled roads full of mud, donkeys and carts, sheep being herded through town, machinery and tractors all over the place, and many children begging for money. On the other hand Doğubayazıt has some spectacular views too: Mount Ararat, though shrouded in clouds for our complete stay and the mountains on the other side that lead up to Ishak Paşa. It can also boast the greatest number of internet cafes that we have ever seen in any town, village or small city for that matter. Another extreme - though not something I would want to brag about - is, if you ever wanted to know what it is like to be in heavy military terrain, then this is the place to be. Though with all the barbed wire fences on display, it doesn't give you much chance for adding too many holiday snaps to the photoalbumn.

We go with the guide books recommendation and get a room at Tahran Hotel. The receptionist is very friendly and speaks really good English which is a consolation, because the room, while bearable 'bare-minimum' stuff and not so clean sheets, has one of the grottiest bathrooms to date. I suppose it doesn't matter too much though since it is only for a couple of days and we have a lot of things to do.

The best task on the list though will have to be surprising Simon and Pierre-Yves. We are a day earlier than expected. Besides the fun playing pool, eating, chatting and chinking a glass of raki for the last time in Turkey together, we make plans to meet up on the road while heading towards Tehran.

Culturally enlightened
We need a couple of days to get everything done. First on the shopping list is baggy trousers for us both, a long baggy shirt for me along with a few head scarves. We also get new chains fitted on the bikes for a total of 14 lira, which will teach us a very good lesson: always try the bike out after someone else has worked on it.

On our last day we walk to Ishak Paşa, which is a cold but exhilarating climb. The castle itself is well worth a visit but seeing as our guidebook almost makes it out to be the 8th wonder of the ancient world, we are expecting a little more. While we are not disappointed, the surrounding views of mountains are what makes the place so special - for me at least.

On the way up, we stop at a newly opened campsite: Lalezar. We enjoy a couple of cups of tea with Bertil Sanders, while it lightly rains outside and before heading the rest of the way up the hill. On the way down, we meet Jason, who's been on the road for two years or so and we stop again at the campsite, this time with the three of us. The men are already on the raki by this stage and banter and music are flowing. Meçit Taurikulu plays a couple of traditional Kurdish love songs and we leave feeling well culturally enlightened for one day.

wild camping near qarah chaman in IranPars Online [website], Tehran, Iran 06-05-07
Bad luck comes in they say
Doğubayazıt -Turkey to Tehran - Iran
(10 cycle days; 1 rest day; 983km; 4447m)

Doğubayazıt -Turkey to near Marqanlar - Iran (106km; 275m)
Marqanlar to near Koshksaray (113km; 717m)
Koshksaray to Tabriz (99km; 887m)
Tabriz to near Qarah Chaman (92km; 945m)
Qarah Chaman to near Rajein (112km; 143m)
Rajein to Zanjan (116km; 686m)
Zanjan to Abhar (102km; 181m)
Abhar to Qazvin (73km; 108m)
Qazvin to near Kamal Shahr (86km; 237m)
Kamal Shahr to Tehran (84km; 268m)

Day One: Not what you'd call a flying start
We are out the door just before the banks open at 9.30am, so we can change some money over. A small tip we discover is not to try and use banks on a Monday morning in Turkey. You will more than likely end up waiting in a very long queue. We decide to take our chances at the border instead of wasting valuable cycling time.

I had mentioned early about always checking your bikes after someone has worked on them and we only have ourselves to blame really, when we discover that the chains put on our bikes are completely the wrong ones. Any pressure and they just slip and slide over the cassette and crankwheel. Another bike shop on the way out of town doesn't have any suitable chains either, so we decide to put the two spares we have been carrying with us on and pick up more spares in Tehran.

The bike shop owner really wants to help us out, even though he doesn't have a chaintool. They still slip a bit and they are way too long so we make a second stop to remove a few links, a few kilometres or so down the road, at a petrol station.

The night before we had noticed that one of our ocky straps was missing as well as 2 mini-discs. I was certain that we had all these items when we first took the room at Tahran Hotel but after turning the place upside down, we still couldn't find them. Now, at the petrol station I try to find our Victorinox tool and discover that this is also no longer in our luggage. It all seems a little suspect like the door handle on our hotel room door. Anyway, it is not all bad since the owner lends us a pair of pliars. Well at least not until it starts snowing. While the white stuff keeps coming down for 45 minutes we are spoiled with the copious cups of tea given to us by the guy who runs the place.

Our journey finally begins around 12.30pm. Roads are slushy and we have all our wet weather gear on. It is cold as well. Luckily a wind in the back sends us flying towards the border and makes up for a little of the time lost. At this frontier, we will be saying goodbye to many things we have grown to love about Turkey: simit and crusty fresh bread, karsali pide, the uncountable versions of Atatürks noble portrait, sweet aniseed flavoured raki; tea that forever flows and the Renault 12. I'm sure there'll still be chickens on highway median strips and cows grazing by petrol stations and of course plenty of goats, sheep and donkeys dotting the countryside. The people are rumored to be some of the most friendly in the world, though, it will be hard to beat the Turkish Hospitality and fun we experience here.

Apart from me having to throw on a head scarf and covering my backside with a long shirt, the formalities are just the same as anywhere else in the world. Though po-faced officials that get a kick out of looking at documents as though there is something amiss, is about as bad as it gets. At the last post, the customs officer, more warmly than his position requires, welcomes us to Iran. It is a shame that the cold south easterly wind has other ideas: it tries to blow us back the way we came for the few kilometers before dying down and allowing the sun to warm us back up. Immediately, the surroundings give off a completely different vibe and apart from the obvious differences in landscape, housing style, over-abundance of Paykan vehicles and language, it is hard to put a finger on what exactly has changed.

We stop for supplies in Maku but are unable to find any bread. Looks like tomorrow's breakfast will be our favourite: chocolate rice pudding, dried apricots and biscuits; the latter, like in Turkey, are in plentiful supply here. The bread buying thing proves a problem for the first few days, until it becomes apparent that we just need to be a bit more observant to detect a bakery. The first and most obvious sign you have fouond one is the informal gathering of both men and women by an inconspicuous glass window somewhere in the village. Men and women don't gather communally in public for any other reason, except on the roadside to hail down a taxi or bus. Quite often the shop is off the main road or tucked away in a corner somewhere, so we are learning to keep the eyes open.

The other tactic is to ask for nun [bread] at any shop or restaurant. You will most likely get some of their own supply, which they buy in more than adequate amounts, so don't think you are taking their last morsels. It is either that or you'll be escorted to the local bread shop. In the bigger towns you can usually suffice with flat bread found in small local stores. Don't expect to see chain-supermarket in Iran, because they just don't exist. And just like the good 'ol days, before you have crossed everything off the shopping list, you'll need to visit at least a couple of shops.

Besides the little township of Maku, it is rural everywhere you look. Camping along the roadside is easy and no-one bothers you. In fact, we have never felt safer. Herders even respect your privacy and steer the sheep and goats amply around the tent, giving a friendly wave as they do. We pull over near Marganlar (106km; 275m). Days are much longer now and light starts at around 5am - not that we are up then - and it is dark by 7.30pm. This gives you time to cycle a decent amount of kilometers and the chance to get the evening meal ready without draining too much battery power. Though since we are experiencing a higher sun for longer periods, the battery is fully charged each day. This is a complete turnabout from our previous months. It is still bitterly cold at night, though at a height 1300 metres above sea level, that has to be expected.

Day Two: Not a tree or shop in sight
After a few hours of treeless, craggy rock-faces and absolutely no shops anywhere, we stop for a break. A curious herder comes over and shakes Aaldrik's hand and offers to slaughter a sheep for us. I'm not quite sure what he thinks we will do with it: throw the poor beast over the back of the bike and let the blood drain out along route? Ali, of course, politely refuses and the herder continues on his merry way. We do as well, though I'm suffocating a little going up the hills in the warm sun, with this scarf wrapped around my throat.

The night before we left Doğubayazıt, the well known tour guide in town, Memhet, warned us not to stay in or near a town called Evoghli. According to him, they all smoke opium there, but seeing as it is literally the only township we see after 60 odd kilometers that might possibly have a shop, we take the turn off anyway. Everyone seems pretty alert and an old lady opens her shop especially for us. Unfortunately, she has little on offer, but we buy two fruit juices and a couple of chocolate bars for her troubles. It costs the grand sum total of 3000 rials - 25 euro cents.

The men appear to be speaking Kurdish so we ask for ekmek [bread] and before we know it a scooter has pulled up and we are offered an excessively large plastic bag filled with several kilograms of bread tied in cloth. We motion that carrying this will overload the bike but they are insistent: it is either the whole bag or nothing. The fact that they want nothing in return does register as a little over generous, but we are pretty hungry and the extra weight seems a small price to pay. We stock up on bottled water at the entrance to the town and a bit further down the road, rest in a farmers field. Here, we learn exactly why the bread was given to us for free: it is unquestionably more than a few days old. With much of it starting to mould, we throw most of it away. A couple of pieces seem edible enough, but in hindsight this was not such a clever idea: the cramps a few hours later are not at all pleasant.

We pass through so many small mud house villages with no apparent amenities and we wonder if the whole of Iran will be like this. To be on the safe side, we decide to stock up for a few days at the next available town. However, this place doesn't come before we need to find a spot to pitch the tent for the night. near Koshksaray (99km; 717m)

Before cooking, Ali gives the stove a long overdue clean but it decides to play up after this. The next morning, it won't ignite at all and having a cup of coffee is looking ominous. By the time Ali has pulled the thing apart and put it back together for the umpteenth time, I abandon initial cooking plans and get on with making a salad for breakfast. It is actually pretty delicious and an optimistic donkey thinks so too as he tries his luck by continually wandering as close to the tent as possible to watch us eat. His owner leads the herd of sheep and goats with a wide birth around the tent while we pack-up. Instead of the early start we had hoped for, we leave at 9.40am.

Day Three: Climb against the wind
It is a slow climb the whole day and especially when side winds pick up to gale force after Marand. I find it exhausting trying to keep my bike on the road and stop regularly, which irritates Ali no end. Admittedly, we have only done 23 kilometres since starting off and it is already 11.30am but the pressure of the two 100 kilometer rides the days before, the slight incline today, the incessant wind and my still not yet strengthened ankle is a bit too much. I have to strap it in place with a second bandage in order to continue on.

The climb continues on too and we refuge halfway up at a petrol station, where we are refreshed by a couple of warm cups of tea. They only sell diesel, so a truckie kindly fills our petrol bottle from his personal supply. It costs us nothing and just to put it into perspective, a litre of petrol in Iran is 6.4 euro cents. Yes...that is a point between the 6 and the 4.

We both really battle the next 3 kilometres and sidled as close to one and other as possible without causing a collision. Another stop is required and we shove down some flatbread and Nutella. The next couple of kilometers seems like forever, but we do make it to the top. The reward is a great downhill cycle into Sofiyan: a quaint city centre with all the mod-cons. Tabriz is only 30 kilometers further on and we opt for trying to reach it. While riding into town and having to fight our way through the sea of Paykan cars and motorcycles, it begins to rain quite heavily. Just our luck that it couldn't hold off a half an hour or so. Still, it isn't half as bad as having to cycle a further in kilometres of congested peak hour traffic, before finding a hotel for the night in Tabriz (99km; 887m)

We settle for Hotel Djahan Nama along the main strip. It is being done up and stinks of paint but it's not too bad for Iranian standards: a toilet that pongs, tell-tale black hairs in the bed confirming that the sheets haven't been washed, pillows made of stone and a central heating system that comes on at the weirdest of times. On the plus side though, it is a majestic old building with high arches and ceilings, ornate cornicing, and marble everywhere. The owner is a friendly old man and the room rate is a steal at 90,000 rials/ night(€ 1 = 12,500 Rial). Another bonus is they serve a really great traditional breakfast of flatbread, feta cheese - that beats any feta we've ever tasted - butter, honey and a bottomless teapot for 1 Khomeini - 10,000 Rial per person. That is about 80 euro cents.

Like all good things, bad luck comes to an end too
The legs are tired and we spend a rest day in Tabriz, sleeping in, eating, wandering around the bazaar, buying some supplies and visiting the atmospheric Modern Tabriz Restaurant a few doors up from our hotel. We thought we would try our luck here the first night in Tabriz. Before we had even got a foot in the door we are told "sit", which we do of course. The coloured fluorescent lighting and decor reminds you of a Chinese restaurant and a couple of almost comical waiters in creme silk waistcoats fuss around the table. The place gets quite busy, mostly with families. Without even saying anything, a large bowl of soup, flatbread, onions, gherkins, salad and either fanta or coke appear just seconds after sitting. A yellow clipboard with the menu for every type of kebab possible promptly follows. Luckily for us, we can stick with the (hopefully) vegetarian soup, even order a second one plus a plate of rice and fries. We finish off with a refreshing cup of tea. In total it's a ridiculous 40,000 rials.

A royal Tour de France feel
The next day is Friday: the first day of the weekend in Iran and not every shop is closed as some guidebooks would have you believe. Riding out along the highway requires an almost continuous wave on our part and we accept drinks and numerous other goodies out of car windows. We now know what it feels like to be the queen and a participant in the Tour de France simultaneously. Today we collect an unbelievable amount of presents: 4 cans of juice, 4 chocolate bars, a packet of biscuits, two large handfuls of toffee, 2 mandarins and 2 apples This alone, paints a completely different picture of Iranian people and life here. Being the weekend, the roads are full of family packed vehicles driving to their favourite picnic or camping spot or just out seeing the sights. This is not the last display of how important the family unit is in Iranian culture.

All the goodies came in handy today as it is yet another slow climb. Still, it is not too difficult to reach the 2111metre pass but we are wondering if we will ever go down. Tonight we camp at 1722 metres near Qarah Chaman (92km; 945m), our highest ever camping altitude. The surrounding views of green and brown earth mountains with silky sunlit snow-caps are absolutely stunning. Contrastingly, the sides of the road look like recent landfill areas in sections. The highways are heavily patrolled by police; mostly for document checks and speeding controls. Not much chance of drink driving here, which is a consolation for cyclists and especially after the notorious Turkey truckies. We get stopped at nearly every check point, more out of curiousity and a chance for the police to practise their English more than anything else. Only one control point actually wants to see our passports, but they are way more ecstastic about having their photograph with Aaldrik with his bike.

Downhill all the way
Finally it is the rolling downhill that we've been waiting for and if it hadn't been for the two broken spokes - one each -, we would have made a record trip today. Adding to the effortless journey is a slight tailwind, which allows us plenty of time to gaze around. The countryside is just amazing: rocky, lots of very fast moving water from the mountains, rickety old bridges, smiling faces, big hellos and welcomes. Genuine hospitality. The image the rest of the world has of this country is so completely wrong. We have never felt more at home, safe and welcome anywhere else.

We still haven't bumped into our French friends: Pierre Yves & Simone and it is now unlikely that we will. They are probably already in Tehran seeing as they had planned to catch the train from somewhere close to Zanjan. Our campsite tonight is an unused farmers field next to the railway line near Rajein (112km; 143m). We stop around 5pm and still have a few good hours to sit outside the tent, devour a bag of the ever so addictive salty-roasted sunflower seeds, watch swallows dance above our heads and wind down to a silent mountain sunset.

Without a word of a lie: Iran is a beautiful place and the people are not bad
We start as early as possible and no matter how hard we try, the early morning routine always takes around two hours. Nonetheless, we are on the bikes just after 8.30am with beautiful clear blue skies ahead, a moderate sun above and a cool breeze tickling our backs. The landscape is quite different today: fields being irrigated heavily by the abundance of mountain water followed by quite a bit of rock mining.

We reach Zanjan at around 15.30, pick up supplies and then head out of town to an orchestra of beeps and hellos. The highway is very busy but that still doesn't stop people from slowing down by the side of us to pass out chocolate bars and drinks or just simply find out where we come from, where we are going and to welcome us warmly to Iran. Even those with limited English still manage to hang their heads out of the window and scream "Hello, I love you".

We are stopped by a couple just out of the town and offered to spend the night with them but we really have our hearts set on arriving in Tehran in four days time and it would mean going back quite a number of kilometres. The woman, who does all the talking in English, wishes us well for the rest of the journey and pleads with us to tell everyone, when we get back home, that Iran is a beautiful place and that the Iranian people are not bad people. Without a word of a lie, we can do that and what is more we will do it too.

We stop by an orchard just on the outskirts of Zanjan (116km; 686m) and I'm glad because any longer and I would need an operation to prise the bike seat from my bottom. The trip was quite long today: nearly 7 hours in the saddle and one buckled link in my chain to repair. Our chosen spot is close to the highway and a little noisy but we still manage to get a well earned rest.

Recommend the train
The road from Zanjan to Tehran is long, straight, flat and boring; not to mention incredibly busy and windy. The landscape is just as dull. We take the old highway but notice that there is more traffic where we are, than on the brand spanking new asphalt laid a kilometre to the side of us. Adding to our concentrated efforts, it is in poor condition and with a severe lack of bitumim shoulder. Often, we are forced to ride on loose gravel and over potholes. This slows us down considerably and makes for a rather uncomfortable ride.

Trucks rule the roost and when no traffic is coming from the opposite direction, they use the road as a dual and even triple carriageway, regardless of whether we are on the road or not. This certainly keeps us on our toes springing from road to uneven shoulder continuously. I keep thinking about Pierre-Yves & Simon, sitting comfortably in an air-conditioned train and at times, secretly wish that we had done the same.

students at takestan university students near Quazvin, Iran

Breaking the monotony with a little sightseeing
Soltaniyeh is 5 kilometres from the highway and we decide to add some sight seeing to the day's journey and turn off. The famous brick dome is okay, but all the scaffolding inside completely kills the atmosphere. I suppose they have to fix it up at sometime and the rooftop views undeniably make up for it.

Thank goodness for the numerous townships along the way, which help break up the monotonous ride. There is very little ground suitable for camping and we resort to asking a vineyard farmer if we can pitch on his land a few kilometres after Abhar (102km; 181m). I'm not sure if he knew exactly what he was saying yes to, but he didn't bother us once we were set up, so I guess it was okay.

A little gay town
Today, we stop outside Takestan University for a mid-morning breather and watch the students arrive from all corners by bus, car and taxi . There is an overwhelming majority of male students and except for the two audacious guys with groovy sunglasses and cool haircuts - who followed us up the road for a chat - they are not that trendy. The girls wear mostly jeans, manteau [mid thigh length coat dress] and head scarf with overly coiffured hair poking out at the front. Maybe 30% have the traditional abaya [black cloak] and are conservatively covered. A few push the boundaries with jeans a little above the ankles, sleeves at just over three-quarter length and a manteau that surprisingly so, leaves little of their owner's body-shape to the imagination.

Our destination is Qazvin (73km; 108m), a town whispered about for its large gay population. We are very curious to see if the rumours are true. At one stage, we see two guys handcuffed to each other running down the street and as far as we can tell, they are laughing about it; which does seem a little weird. But I suspect by the stares I get from walking down the street in a baby blue scarf and oversized white shirt, I was more peculiar. I guess I added a bit more entertainment to this unusual little city. The bazaar in particular is very atmospheric.

After a few attempts and finally getting a hand-drawn map from the hotel receptionist, we found an internet cafe. The "@" symbol and the ADSL letters were the only give away that up the two flights of stairs, we might find a small "cafenet" [the term used in Iran for internet cafe]. Our LOI for Uzbekistan has come through, though scanned in incorrectly and we need to change the pixel ration in Photoshop before it can be printed off on a A4 page. The guys at were extremely patient and helpful and they gave us the internet time and printing for free, along with warm wishes for the rest of our travels.

A good innings
The day before we enter Tehran we want to pedal as far as is feasible, making the following day's trip into the city nice and short. Like yesterday the cycling journey is nothing out of the ordinary, but all the people who stop their cars on the side of the road to chat with us, invite us back for tea or lunch, or give us something are incredibly special.

After a good innings, a rapidly moving black sky and what seems like the beginning of another built up area, we find a long enough field near Kamal Shahr (86km; 237m) where we can venture half a kilometre into the pasture, well away from the highway and out of view of passing traffic. We are just in time because immediately after setting up, it begins to bucket down along with thunder, lightning and strong wind. It let's up enough for us to cook an evening meal and then continues practically the whole evening and early morning.

herder watching us packup near Tehran, Iran

Not as bad as we thought
A curious herder comes by the tent as we are packing the next day and just sits and watches us for 10 minutes or so before moving his herd on.

It takes us about twenty minutes of pedalling to hit Karaj: a very busy and modern city with congested morning traffic and little or no signposting - except to direct you to the freeway. We end up on the wrong road, but luckily it only detours us 10 kilometres or so. The highway is in pretty good nick and with a tailwind pushing us all the way to the centre of Tehran, we breeze in quite easily.

We had been really apprehensive about this trip, especially after hearing all the horror stories from other bike travellers. The highway is definitely busy and we find travelling along the middle section and not the service road much easier than dodging the buses, taxis, motorcycles and pedestrians. We make it into the centre near Imam Khomeini Square Tehran (84km; 268m) by mid afternoon. This is where all the hotels are situated, though we have no idea where Hotel Khazar Sea is. We stop to ask and a very friendly but a little pushy local, who conveniently speaks fluent German, decides it is his duty to take us under his wing and to find our hotel. The hotel has a good vibe, simple rooms, share toilets and showers. It is the bare minimum, but at 80,000 rial (approx 6 euros) for us both per night you could hardly expect more in the heart of the Iranian capital city.

The French guys are stying just down the road in another hotel and we spend the rest of the afternoon and night exchanging experiences and stories of the past two weeks of travel with them. It is unanimous, and we all agree that Iran is a fantastic country to not only travel by bike in but to camp wild in as well. Ali and I are also pleased to hear that falafel shops are rampant in Tehran too. Although the hygiene levels of these take-away stores leaves a bit to be desired, we have finally found a fast food item that a vegetarian can safely eat. One falafel and a small bottle of drink costs about 40 euro cents. Now, you can't complain about that.

Tomorrow will be Friday and a day off for most Iranians. Some shops are open in the morning through to early afternoon and bakeries are open every morning. If you are contemplating riding into Tehran then the best day would be a Friday. The traffic is at an absolute minimum. Late Thursday afternoon is also an option as most people have already left work for the day.

After the weekend, we will be occupying ourselves with the quest of obtaining our Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan visas: a task not at all clear nor standard for everyone. We meet Niall, another cyclist going the same route at Firouzeh Hotel a bit of a travellers hangout for drinking tea and generally chatting, even if you are not staying there. We team up together to tackle the Uzbek Embassy on Sunday morning.

The joys of obtaining visas
The stories and what you need to obtain a visa are so varied, that we tend to go with just about every original document we have on us, plus several photocopies as well. This time however, the requirements are minimal: we need two passport photographs, our Letter of Invitation number, and our passports. To our amazement, staff at the Uzbekistan Embassy even fill in the application form for us. All we have to do is sign both pages, pay 30,000 Rials administration costs and the $US75 visa fee each. Niall, an Irish citizen, has to pay US$93 for his visa.

Everything is so conveniently processed the same day and we are suitably impressed. Especially seeing as when we rocked up at well before the Embassy's opening time, a queue of travel agents armed with wads of passports had already formed. And the appointment system: write your name, in turn, on a piece of paper which is then tucked above the door bell, seemed a little dubious. Niall believes it to be rather forward moving in comparison with his earlier experiences at the Tajikistan Embassy. We take his word for it and go off to find a coffee, which is harder than you think in Iran. When we return the white piece of paper with all our names had made its way inside the building. A step in the right direction, we all agreed. We waited a good two hours in total, before being summoned, to queue again in the stairwell next to a tiny sliding window in the wall.

den of espionage, former US embassy in Tehran, Iran With the visa well and truly stamped in our passports, we decide to try our luck with getting the application forms from the Turkmenistan Embassy even though it is closed to the public in the afternoon. A speedy taxi ride through back streets and alleyways that causes me to completely lose all sense of direction gets us to the Embassy. We are not ripped off this time and we give the driver an extra 5000 Rial for his excellent car manoeuvring skills. A bit of negotiating on Niall's behalf and one application form is passed out through a wooden window and with the instructions to photocopy it ourselves. Fine by us, and we leave with a "job well done" feeling and going on today's procedures, a sense of security that tomorrow, everything will be processed and we can start to think about cycling out of Tehran.

We decide to leave early, armed with the filled in application form, pass photograph, copy of our passport, Iranian and Uzbek visas - all in triplicate. We ring the bell at the appropriate outside window. Niall goes first and is given a glue stick to paste his photos on the application form. He then discovers that he only needs to give two copies of his passport and two copies of the Uzbek visa. The news that the visa will take 7-10 days follows and totally puts an oversized spanner in all our plans.

We plead with the official to try and speed things up for us and explain that we are cyclists and need time to first ride to the border - at least 1000 kilometers away. He promises to do what he can and we take his name and number to call back in two days time- which will be a Wednesday. We leave rather deflated and the decision to treat ourselves to a restaurant meal is easy one to make. Niall suggests a vegetarian place run by the Iranian Artists' Forum [Baghe Honarmandan, Corner of Moosavie St. and Taleghani Ave] It is in the park near the US Den of Espionage - former US Embassy at Taleghani Metro Station. Though the service could be slightly improved, the food is great and inexpensive. It is also a notch up from the usual diners and cafes we tend to frequent.

Back in our hotel room that evening we work out that even in the most optimistic of circumstances, we will now need to get a train across most of Iran. Not at all what we had in mind and a shame that we can't experience more of what this country has to offer from the saddle.

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