Zanjan mosque, Iran.

Zanjan mosque, Iran.

Thanks to having sorted all my visas I could now head north to the Caspian sea coast and completely avoid some of the worst traffic on Earth around Tehran. There was just the small matter of crossing the Alborz mountain range first but I was rewarded by a stroke of incredible luck and ran into one of my adventure heroes on the road!

I had another day off in Zanjan before hitting the road and headed off into town with my host Behman. I was in dire need of a waterproof jacket as the poncho I have been using ( which was perfectly functional in Turkey, Georgia and Armenia) has come a cropper in Irans penchant for combining rain and hail with high winds.

Behman showed me to a small tucked away mountaineering store that to my surprise had a huge stock of some of the highest end gear I’ve ever seen in person. £600 Sleeping bags rated down to -40c, the type of thing you’d take to the poles or up Everest, are fairly niche products usually found only in online retailers in the UK so it was interesting to have a nose at this gear in person.

We were out a few minutes later with my wallet $40 lighter and a very nice Iranian made waterproof in hand. We then headed off to a money changer Behman knew who, as a fellow bicycle tourist, proceeded to give me an above market exchange rate. Afterwards we nipped into the mosque (see above picture) and in the neighbouring bazaar I picked up a locally handmade knife, something the city is very famous for…

My lovely Zanjan knife!

My lovely Zanjan knife!

They had many much nicer larger ones but I was keen to get one I’d actually be able to get back into the UK (Knives with locking mechanisms are illegal in the U.K. as well as rules about blade length if you didn’t know).

That night we headed off to a local English language institute where a guy Behman knew call Saeed was a teacher. I give a few Q&A sessions with a couple of classes mostly being asked about my trip and about the differences between the UK and Iran. Many Iranians are concerned that there is a global reputation that their country is 50 years behind the rest of the world and that they are all a bunch of fundamentalist terrorists.

I explained that in the U.K. most people just don’t know much about Iranian people, neither good nor bad. I also emphasised a subtlety that Western media tends to refer to the actions of a government directly rather than as the country as a whole. For example a decent news article will say “The Chinese government has done X” where as I’ve noticed media in some other countries will report the same story saying “China has done X”. The result of this being that most people in the West seem to have a firm grasp that a governments actions may not reflect the desires of its people in the slightest. After a few group photos we headed out for some fast food and hubble-bubble (Shisha/Hookah)…

At the language school in Zanjan, Iran.

At the language school in Zanjan, Iran.

For what it’s worth, and I realise I haven’t written that much so far about what the country is like outside of the hospitality, Iran is a very modern and cosmopolitan place. Virtually everyone I’ve met has received a university education, almost exclusively in Engineering and Sciences, and half of those again have completed Masters and Phd’s, many from foreign universities.

The standard of English among many people is very high and there is a huge desire to travel abroad, something unfortunately difficult due to strict visa regulations for Iranians. Despite this many Iranians travel to Turkey and Armenia to experience bars and clubs and the slightly more Western environment.

If you were to get rid of the islamic dress code (which is written into law) you would struggle to tell parts of Tehran from London, the Metro certainly puts ours to shame. A shocking story I’ve had related to me by a few people I’ve met is that when they chat to foreigners online some of them ask if everyone in Iran rides camels. Unless Camel is a model of car that I don’t know about this assumption couldn’t be more wrong.

Back at Behman’s that evening he and his brother explained that a section of road I was planning to ride on on the way to the Caspian is notoriously dangerous due to high winds and being cut into a cliff (the road running into Manjil from the west for those interested). I was advised to get a taxi through the 40km stretch but I decided I would give it a go and hitch hike through if it was seriously bad.

I rode out the next morning and was quickly heading up to a mountain pass. It was easy to motivate myself over this as I was climbing from 1900m to 2300m but on the other side I’d be dropping to 30m below sea level, sweet!

At the top of the climb it started to rain heavily and I was so so happy to have my new jacket…

Dry and happy in my new waterproof.

Dry and happy in my new waterproof.

It’s difficult to see in this shot but you can just about make out how quick the terrain drops away from the mountains…

View of the mountains dropping away west of Manjil, Iran.

View of the mountains dropping away west of Manjil, Iran.

I flew down this decent overtaking a guy on a motorbike who took this as a challenge but he couldn’t keep up with my nimble bike through the hairpin bends. Once at the bottom I headed towards the town of Gilvar with some very alien scenery along the way…

Weird rock formations near Gilvar, Iran.

Weird rock formations near Gilvar, Iran.

I planned to camp near Gilvar but this valley had seriously high winds flying along it so I decided to try and find a Mosafernkhaneh (cheap hotel) in town. I asked about but was told the nearest one was in Manjil, the town just after the dangerous road, 35km away. I’d already ridden 100km that day but was feeling great so decided to head on.

The man I’d spoken to was visibly concerned when he realised I was about to cycle to Manjil and stopped me and tried to explain about the winds. His method of demonstration was to remove the bag of garbage from the back of my bike and to throw its entire contents into the air and I watched in awe as it all blew away down the street. I was struck by his happiness at littering in the town that he lived and also at his presumption that those items were in fact garbage.

I rode on, starting to get nervous that I’d now received two separate warnings about this road, and no more than 1km out of town a car pulled along side and asked where I was from and where I was going. I quickly received my third warning and a “Good Luck” as the car pulled a U-turn and went back into town. This is starting to feel like a bad idea.

The first 30km was fine, albeit with quite gusty winds, but I can see what everyone was complaining when I reached the final section. Wind in itself is not a problem. Even when combined with a narrow road cut into a cliff it is not too bad as long as the wind is constant. The problem on this road is that the cliffs funnel gusts into extremely powerful blasts that come from random directions.

At one point I stopped to drink some water with no wind at all. As I was stood still a blast suddenly struck me hard enough to drag my 40kg bike, plus me on top of it, sideways dragging the tyres along the tarmac with the brakes on. It moved me about 2 feet towards the edge before stopping and my heart was going like the clappers.

Thankfully the road was very quiet, and the cars that were on it were driving extremely slowly, so I decide to ride on the wrong side of the road to give the biggest distance possible between myself and the drop away. I didn’t think to take any photos of the bad section but this is from just before which may give some idea…

Before the road got really bad...

Before the road got really bad…

Relieved to have safely reached Manjil I checked into a Mosafernkhaneh above a mechanics for the bargin price of £4 for a private room.

In the morning I set out on the short 80km ride to the city of Rasht where a young woman, Mojgan, who I’d got into contact through Facebook had offered to show me around. It’s worth mentioning Facebook is blocked in Iran but virtually everyone still has a profile, they are all experts in getting around the restrictions! On the ride to town I spotted this huge sculpted forest on the side of a hill which had been grown into the shape of the symbol of Iran…

Symbol of Iran on the road to Rasht, Iran.

Symbol of Iran on the road to Rasht, Iran.

There’s something I’ve been laughing at myself about recently and my above comment “the short 80km ride” brought it back to mind. The first day of this trip was an 80km ride from London to Brighton and it nearly killed me taking a laborious 12 hours for me to drag my sorry self along. 6 months later an 80km day now warrants a lie in as well as no need to worry about pacing myself to make it through the 4 hours or so it will take me. The first thing I want to do when I get back to the UK is recreate that first day and see how I hold up now.

Once I reached Rasht I met up with Mojgan, and after I quickly checked into a cheap hotel (£4.50 a night) for two nights we went off for a walk around town and hung out in the park where Mojgan educated me on the countries “Morality police”. This is a separate plain clothes police force who enforce the islamic dress code as well as several other laws that are routed in religion. For example wearing a head scarf too high on the head, showing too much fringe, or a manteau (type of trenchcoat) that does not cover enough bum can result in jail time or whipping, but for younger woman seems to mostly result in being taken home and embarrassed in front of your parents. On top of this it turns out walking dogs in public is also illegal due to dogs being considered dirty in Islam, despite this dogs are popular here but just have to be exercised in private. We had a good laugh trying to guess who might be secret police scoping out the busy park.

Despite my arrogant comments about how easy I find 80km days I was still pretty tired so headed back to my hotel for a good nights rest after Mojgan and I made plans to visit a famous nearby village, Masuleh, the next day.

In the morning we hopped our way to Masuleh in shared Taxi’s, Mojgan very generously paying for them. The last taxi is worth a mention for being one of the most suicidal drivers I have ever seen. How anyone, even a bad driver, can drive on the wrong side of the road on a blind bind whilst texting without their survival instinct kicking in is beyond me.

Outside many roadside ambulance stations in Iran there are, what appear to be, cars that have been involved in serious collisions raised up on podiums. Mojgan confirmed my theory that these are to serve as a warning but explained that their introduction has had no affect on the crazy driving in Iran.

We reached Masuleh, happy to be in one piece, and started to walk up into the town. Masuleh is a pretty little town famous for it’s beautiful surroundings and for being built up a very steep hill side…

Masuleh, Iran.

Masuleh, Iran.

There are many villages like this around the world but what makes Masuleh unique is that the roof of the house on one level is the road on the level above…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After knackering ourselves on the steep steps in the town we headed to a nice view point opposite and sat down for a picnic before making our way back to Rasht, with a much better taxi driver.

After having my beard lopped off by a barber (I’d decided I didn’t like it anymore. As a bonus the barbers mirrors pointed out the my crown is starting to thin, lovely.) we checked out a small zoo on the outskirts of Rasht, which had a bear in a much too small enclosure, but also had quite a nice bird enclosure where we spotted an albino peacock…

Albino peacock, Rasht, Iran.

Albino peacock, Rasht, Iran.

Back in town we met up with some of Mojgan’s friends and headed to a London themed Hubble Bubble cafe. This place was really cool. The other hubble bubble joints I’ve been to in Iran have all been occupied only by men and have been fairly practical affairs with the required seating and not much else. This one was differant, closer in atmosphere to the bar in a fancy modern hotel. Looking around the room it also seemed the majority of the cliental were woman.

Whilst chatting over the first proper espresso I’ve had since Austria one of Mojgans friends, upon discovering what road I had cycle along to reach the city, seemed surprised and explained that that road is considered very dangerous to even drive on! The city of Manjil is so famous in Iran for its winds that is now the site of a huge wind farm.

Shattered after a long day sight seeing I headed back to my room and fell into bed.

A very sort 40km the next day to the city of Lahijan which is known for being a very scenic place. I thought this would be an easy ride but due to numerous towns merging along the way I spent the entire 40km battling with traffic on a dual carriageway.

Another thing I have not mentioned in Iran is that reversing along the hard shoulder of a highway, at very high speed, when you have missed your turning is endemic. It is something that I have to deal with in the region of 10-20 times a day. These cars force me to merge into the main traffic of the highway for a few seconds which is obviously rather unpleasant. As an extra bit of fun many cars seem to have no reversing lights, so sometimes what appears to be parked car will, upon closer inspection, be reversing towards you at 35kmph. Combined with the bike travelling forwards at 20kmph or so this doesn’t give you a huge amount of time to react.

I’ve never been so shattered after 40km and, after asking for directions to cheap accommodation and being shown to a rather fancy place, checked in after finding out it was only £17. Over budget but so far in Iran, thanks to the hospitality, camping and cheap accommodation, I am massively under budget so can afford to splurge. I didn’t even have to argue with the manager about taking my bike to my room as the security guard took my side and argued my case for me! Even going so far as to walk my bike right past the manager and into my room himself.

After a shower I took a walk around Lahijan’s scenic lake located right next to the hotel…

The central lake, Lahijan, Iran.

The central lake, Lahijan, Iran.

On the way back to the room I managed to find a litre of Tahin in a grocery store. Tahin is basically just sesame seeds ground into a liquid that resembles, and tastes like, very very runny peanut butter. Bread dunked in Tahin was introduced to me by Jonas, the French cyclist I rode with in my last post, and has to be one of the tastiest, most filling cheap meals I’ve ever had. Not sure of the nutritional quality of it but I’ve certainly felt strong on the bike after eating it.

I used the hotels internet to send a tonne of Warmshowers.org requests for hosting to various cyclists across eastern Iran. As internet is quite sparse here I got my Iranian mobile number off of Behman, my host in Zanjan, and sent this to the hosts so they can contact me. This will become relevant later.

80km the next day, the first 35km or so to Rudsar being much the same as the unpleasant day before but the road then seemed to quiet down a bit and I was happy to receive my first glimpse of the Caspian sea. Due to the geography of the area (large body of water, mountainous coast, being below sea level) the humidity is quite high and as a result the flora and fauna have a much more tropical feel. My main view from the sides of the roads being paddy fields…

Paddy fields on the road to Ramsar, Iran.

Paddy fields on the road to Ramsar, Iran.

I’d hoped it would be nice to camp on the beach but quickly found that this area seems to suffer the same problem I found with the Black Sea coast in Turkey. All the towns have merged into one along the coastal road leaving virtual no empty places to find a camp spot. I decided not to stress about this and to hotel hop for the next few days until I was into the desert and was happy to find a really nice sea front Motel in Ramsar with a huge room, breakfast and free tea and coffee for a mere £10.

I started receiving loads of phone calls from the various Warmshowers hosts I had messaged and quickly had various offers of accommodation and guiding lined up. I then got a call from Behman in Zanjan and it turned out he’d misunderstood me when I asked if he knew my mobile number and had sent me his again, which I’d then included in all of my requests! The poor guy had been receiving calls and messages all night and had been having to pass on my correct info. to all the hosts!

The next morning was perfect. I’d gotten quite down over the depressing amounts of traffic for the last two days but sitting eating my complimentary breakfast on the patio of my room with classical music playing in the background interrupted occasional by the waves of the Caspian sea was certainly a lovely way to begin the day.

I cycled off in good spirits but the next 85km to Chalus were spent battling even more traffic. I’ve never wished pain upon so many people in such a short period of time. One lovely driver decided to cut in front of me at the last second onto the hard shoulder, slam his breaks on in front of me causing me to nearly go into the back of him and then as I passed around his car he opened his door which I then nearly went straight into. Worst of all he seemed completely unable to understand why I was angry with him, there didn’t even appear to be a reason that he pulled over, let alone so abruptly.

I cooled off finding a nice spot on the beach by the Caspian Sea and relaxed with a lemon flavoured “non-alcoholic malt beverage” and finished off my second reading of one of my favourite books…

Caspian Sea and a drink! (non-alcoholic)

Caspian Sea and a drink! (non-alcoholic)

The book was Mark Beamount’s “The Man Who Cycled the World”. Mark was probably the first person to seriously race around the world averaging 100 miles a day for 195 days taking the Guinness World record by a massive two months. The current record is approaching the scary level of only 100 days but Marks book has much more appeal to the bicycle tourist as his approach and equipment resembles fast bicycle touring, the current contenders are far more serious ultra-endurance riders putting in 16 hour days leaving less room to experience the countries they are in. I highly recommend the book, although phrases such as “A disappointing two days at 106 and 121 miles respectively…” serve to either motivate me or frustrate me based on my mood!

Back on the stressful roads I slogged away with music going and mentally exhausting myself having to keep track of every single vehicle near me to ensure none of them did anything stupid. As I rode over a bridge I spotted two touring motorcycles pulled over, one with British plates, and the the riders were waving me over.

They were both British and introduced themselves as Austin and Lois. I immediately had a giggle in my head at the thought that this guy must be a fan of legendary adventure motorcyclist Austin Vince as they share the same name and passion. They explained they were making a film about travel in Iran and Austin whipped out a fancy camera asking if he could interview me. I then realised I recognised his voice.

“Could this actually be Austin Vince!?” I thought to myself and then decided to awkwardly ask “Are you Austin… Mondo Enduro Austin?”, “Yeah I am”. Oh. My. God. This guys film is probably the first global adventure I remember being aware of and is the holy bible for motorcycle tourists. It was the inspiration for Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boormans “Long Way Round” expedition which gained more fame outside the touring community.

I did a quick interview with Lois (Lois Pryce, Austin’s Wife who has completed numerous solo motorbike adventures of her own) for their film and had a quick chat with Austin about one of his Mondo Enduro companions, Clive Greenhough, who was a teacher at my old school (The Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe). We took a few photos with each other (although my camera went a bit wobbly) and went our separate ways. I rode the last few kilometres into Chalus, my goal for the day, with the biggest smile on my face at my amazing luck.

With Lois Pryce...

With Lois Pryce…

... and Austin Vince!

… and Austin Vince!

Onwards east now and I’ll enjoy a few more flat days before a big climb up through the Golestan National Park. I will need to plan this section carefully as I’ve discovered camping in the park is a big problem due to the local Panther population, not something I had expected to encounter on this trip!

If you’ve enjoyed reading this then checkout my site 121degrees for more info and subscribe to this blog for more entries along the way!

I also want to divert the interest this trip generates towards helping out a charity that made a big differance to some friends of mine. Samuels Children Charity are a Lewes based charity providing support to families throughout the UK who are currently affected by childhood cancer. I hope to raise the sum of £5,000 from people who hear about this trip to help them continue their work, and to also keep me motivated throughout the challenges this trip will provide! If you’d like to see how the fundraising is going (or even better would like too donate!) then click here.

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