Iran should be the country that, of all the places we will or have now visited, we know best and are most informed about (or should be, at any rate) and indeed there is much – so very much – to say. In fact, there is so much say that we cannot stick to our habitual format of one blog for each country. So here is Part One: roughly speaking from the Turkish border in the tip-top north west of the country (Azerbaijan province) to Tehran – A vaguish half-way point on our journey to the eastern border with Turkmenistan.
At the outset we confess that the last 5 weeks here in Iran have polarised even further our real love, and serious distaste, for almost all aspects of life here in Iran. Our visits to Iran in 2005, 2006 and now, have effectively bookended much of Mr Ahmadinejad’s presidency and we have seen considerable changes in day-to-day life, not least the rocketing inflation that has had a deflating effect on absolutely everyone. (If only we were given a Rial for every time we heard the smoulderingly angry complaints of taxi-driver, baker and fruit seller alike, regarding the 500% hike in the cost of fuel, we could live handsomely indeed – irrespective of the fact there are almost 20,000 Rials to the British Pound).
On the eve of our departure from Iran – we presently sit in Serakhs, a scrawny border town, waiting for the commencement of our Turkmen visa – we are as conflicted as ever about Iran, its politics, its people and cultural identities. It remains, we suspect, one of the most misconstrued countries in the world, not least due to the meagre trickle of information that finds its way out of Iran and onto Western television sets. No, Iranians do not want (amazingly enough) to launch nuclear bombs all over the globe but DO want to ensure that this country is never again treated like a play-thing, or enormous piggy-bank, for imperial powers as was historically the case.
The British and Americans have a great deal to answer for here. Not least in terms of decades of oil theft (take a bow, Anglo Persian Oil Company) and the US orchestrated coup that brought the reviled Shah (and his secret police – Savak) to power, in place of the dignified and popular Prime Minister Mossadegh. It is no exaggeration to say that Iran’s politics and history are intensely rich and complicated. While the last 32 years have been dominated by the Islamic Revolution of Imam Khomeini and his crew of theocratic power-mongers, who have introduced savage restrictions on social and political life, it is important to remember that this is the country that was home to a highly sophisticated and civilised society 2,500 years ago (See Persepolis) and that drafted the first ever charter on Human Rights (Cyrus’ Cylinder) way before such a bill of rights was on the lips of revolutionaries elsewhere in the world.
The last 32 years have resulted in a truly schizophrenic society. Officially access to much of the internet is blocked (BBC, Guardian, NY Times, (even poor old “Odycycle”)…..forget about it) and yet people in their homes have filter-breakers routing them to the internet through remote, California-based servers, keeping them connected to each other through facebook and twitter. Television is completely controlled and censors pour over every film, play and museum exhibition, ensuring all remain “on message”, but umpteen farsi (including BBC Persia, Man-o-To from London) and international satellite channels are beamed in through the dishes hidden in the nooks and crannies of north Tehrani rooftops and backyards all over the country.
The demands of ‘hejab’, that women are covered from head to toe, make cycling for Francesca in 45 degree heat all the more trying. But as rural and urban chador-clad women (a cross between Darth Vader and a crow) bite at their black fabric to keep it from straying too far from their faces, the women of north Tehran, in their tight manteaux, high-heels and nose jobs, show off more bouffant hair-do’s, under their very loose and pushed-back head-scarves, than you’d see at a 1960’s beehive convention.
Men and women are separated at every turn –buses, taxis, mosques etc etc etc; women are prohibited from singing or dancing and, not least, excluded from any position of political power – and while they are incredibly strong and educated, definitely wearing the household trousers and at the same time managing to hold down high-powered jobs, they are not allowed to run for the presidency and no high government position is held by a woman. And yet…….And yet……
We are drawn back time and time again to the hugely generous and kind world of Iranian life, full of mighty gastro-feasts (always prepared by women), peaceful gardens – with their sophisticated balance harmonising all things human and eco. This is truly a nation blessed with some of the most pleasurable natural beauty. No Iranian, tumescent with pride, is shy to speak of the lush green ‘JANGAL’ of the north, the snow-capped Alborz peaks – their skirts brimming with carpets of poppies, verdant river valleys and glorious waterfalls, to name but a few.
And so we have peddled. From those first few early days across the seemingly endless shimmering wetlands of Lake Orumiyeh onto the surprisingly tranquil (yet bustling) city of Tabriz, notorious on the Silk Road (which we had joined up with), for its bazaar, full of Astrakhan-style ‘papakh’ hats and sumptuous Persian carpets (all depressingly leagues beyond our means. Instead we just ogled).
As the kilometres ticked by we hopped (2 days of cycling over a mountain range) from one of those strands of Silk that represented a primary trading route for centuries on end (ferrying spices and – you guessed it – silk westwards and European treasure eastwards), to the muggy and populous southern Caspian coast route. A sadly and unfortunately tiresome 300km strip of tarmac, depressingly awash with sea-side tat and concrete crap.
We say unfortunate due to the tantalising beauty that lies off to either side of this highway. An expansive (though unhappily somewhat polluted) Caspian sea that abruptly ends with the precipitously green-jungled slopes of the Alborz mountains, speckled with the opulent villas of goodly north Tehrani folk who periodically grit their teeth to crawl through the hours of traffic to find their bit of cool paradise at their second homes. In complete contrast to us Brits, Iranians seek out rain, cloud-cover and greenery for their dream holiday destination!
Our time at the coast coincided with Iranian holidays. We contentedly bustled along with the multitudes of holiday-makers ‘gardeshing’ their hearts out. ‘Gardesh’ – so hard to translate. ‘To picnic’ does not even come close. ‘Gardesh’ is a quintessentially Iranian pass-time, indeed a life-style choice, not just something you do with some provisions from Sainsbury’s on a Saturday afternoon. It involves packing up the car to bursting with the 5 litre chai thermos, glass mugs, the entire kitchen in fact, 4 picnic rugs, ten tonnes of food and the standard issue luminous tent to pick a spot in the mountains, along the coast, even in a town park to pitch and eat and enjoy being out of the urban smoke. We fitted right in (sort of!).
With our blogs we have deliberated tended not to single out any one person that we have met, as it would be invidious to do so given the armies of wonderful and interesting people we have met along the way, of whom we have only been able to make the briefest of mentions. But we must make exception for Mohamed and Mahboubeh. Self-styled “Funman” and his wife. Two gentle and kind-hearted retired souls who swept us off the fume-filled sea-side highway and into their own little lusciously overgrown garden of Eden, and filled our days with hiking in the hills, bat-chasing nonsense, and heavenly rejuvenation. If in old age, we end up like these two young-at-hearts, we will have done something right.
And that about brings us to the mid-point of Iran. We have Tehran, the North-East, Havij Bastani, Plastic coverings, Women’s fashion, Traffic, and more and more politics – both internal and external – all to discuss.
But we end with mention of the weird and wonderful world of Ta’arof. One of the endlessly charming aspects of Persian culture that invariably brings smiles to our faces. While Ta’arof is a cultural linguistic code to adhere to, the primary feature of Ta’arof is essentially a set of pleasantries used in day-to-day life to express in paragraphs when often a word or two would suffice. And so for us it has been the thousand-upon-thousand encouraging shouts of, “Khaste naboshid!” (“Don’t be tired” – A phrase simply used to greet anyone mildly exerting themselves) from road-side fields, tea-houses, honey-sellers, school yards and any other place for that matter from where the people of Iran have watched us roll on by.
So we say to all of you, now undoubtedly flagging from reading a lengthy blog, “Khaste naboshid!” to which you might sweetly reply, “Salamat boshid!” – “Be healthy!”.