Since we were in Italy, people have been warning us. Always about the same thing: the next country. Azerbaijan was no exception: “You’re going to Iran? Ouch. Be careful!”
But the first thing we saw of Iran was not scary at all. We were greeted by two soldiers whose uniforms must have gotten into the wrong washing machine. They didn’t seem to mind their pinkish camouflage look and waved us through with a smile.
Still, the border of Astara turned out to be a bit disappointing. The officers of the Transit Office had already finished work, which meant: We could get into Iran, but our bikes couldn’t. Our KTMs spent the night in the customs area, while headed to a cheap hotel in the border town Astara.
Astara is right by the Caspian Sea and a very lively town. Everyone was out on the streets and we instantly got invited by three gentlemen to a glass of tea. None of them spoke English and we don’t know any Persian. But within our limits, it was a good conversation. These guys made us feel welcome right away.
The next morning we got our bikes out of the customs area. It took some stamps and a little patience, but after three hours we were ready to go.
For these first days in Iran, we didn’t have a fixed route. It’s how we generally travel: The plan is not to have one. Of course there are some roads, cities and sights we want to see. But we really didn’t do much “homework”. So in Northern Iran we erratically jumped from city to city, deciding at night time where to go the next day.
From Astara we went to Tabriz, one of Iran’s many old capitals. A beautiful mountain road took us there. In our past blogs we’ve been writing about how people are waving at us when they see us with our bikes, especially in border regions. But what we had experienced until this point was nothing compared to the Iranians excitement. People were waving and yelling and honking. All the time. It was unbelievable.
We got into town when it was already getting dark. At intersections we were stopped by people to take photos with them. We quickly found a hotel and the friendliness continued. Here’s an example. We asked the receptionist “Can he have a bottle of water?” and he replied with big gesture: “Yes. I have no choice. I love the Germans so much!” Another one: When we came back from a walk into town the staff had covered our bikes to protect them from the rain.
First thing in the morning was finding a gas station. Not as easy as in other countries as they don’t stand out as much and there seem to be fewer. Suddenly a BMW GS650 cruised by. Josh from Switzerland was also looking for some fuel.
Since we had the same direction anyway, we decided to ride together. We took some small roads towards Zanjan, but didn’t quite make it there. There were too many “obstacles”. Small, beautiful gravel roads for instance. Action shots had to be taken. Fish had to be eaten. And wherever we stopped for whatever reason, someone would stop to ask if he could help us. To have a closer look at our bikes. Or just to welcome us.
Sometimes it felt like the whole village showed up. And in one case, Thies even got a little test ride a on a Honda CG 125, a bike that you see at every corner here. Iran truly is a nation of (tiny) motorcycles.
At the end of the day we pitched our tents in the hinterland. We practiced the fine art of cooking spaghetti and were a bunch of happy campers.
The morning after, Josh went straight for the coast while we headed for the Alamut Valley via Qazvin.
The Alamut Valley is a small strip between two steep mountain ridges provided for awesome riding on and off-road. Curves galore.
We went all the way up to Hir and even a bit further before turning towards Rasht. This was our hottest ride yet. The temperatures rose to 40 degrees and after surviving some chaotic traffic jams we were done for the day.
We spent a day walking through Rasht, one of Iran’s most liberal cities – and apparently full of very nice and interesting people. In a park, Ali Reza, his wife Solmas and their son Sepas shared their watermelon with us and invited us to ice cream and drinks. At night, the owner of the restaurant we were eating at joined us and we ended up talking to him about “god and the world” (as they say in Germany) for three hours. At the end he simply refused that we’d pay for our meals (in case you’re wondering: we are aware of ta’arof, the Iranians’ formalised politeness, but this was different).
Leaving Rasht we wanted to take a northern route towards Teheran. But finding the right street wasn’t as easy as we had hoped. When we were looking at the map, a man in his 60’s pulled by on a scooter and insisted that he’d show us the way. We passed by a gas station and seized the opportunity to fill up our empty tanks again. When we were done we were in a for a surprise. We wanted to pay, but the serviceman shook his head: the old man had done that already. And he refused that we’d pay him back. We really tried, but he would have none of it. Shout total strangers 40 liters of fuel – who does that? An Iranian. Incredible. He continued to guide us through the city jungle and left us after about 20 minutes smiling and honking. We were on our way.
Eastwards the road led along the Caspian Sea. Fierce use of concrete makes this coast not the kind you want to spend your holidays at so we once again went for the mountains. We found a spot for our tent at a lake where a lot of Iranians where camping (and playing a lot of 90’s techno. There’s no escapin’ this!).
Then it was time to hit the city: Teheran. The road led through some steep and wet tunnels. Since it was the Iranian Friday, the traffic was heading towards the coast. Lucky us, because it looked like 150 kilometers of stop and go.
With about 12 million people, Teheran is huge. It’s built right up to the foot of a mountain ridge and a really interesting, vibrant place; even though it’s missing the big touristic highlights. We spent some interesting days there with our good friend Phéline who flew in from Beirut.
Being the capital, people in Teheran are noticeably used to tourists. Still, the sentence we hear most these days is “Where are you from?”, closely followed by “Welcome to Iran.” Never before have we met people as hospitable as the Iranians. They like to talk to strangers. We are grateful to be here. And we’ll stay for a little while.