We start part two where we left off part one with another curious bit of ta’arof. Not content with the mundane language of “thank you” to express gratitude, Iranians smear far more colour onto their linguistic palette with the phrase, “Dast-e-shoma dard nakone” (Literally – “May your hand not hurt!”). Try it sometime, you’ll never go back to plain-old, “thanks”.
So we abandoned you last time approximately 1300km across Iran, somewhere on a Silk Road. We had hoped to avoid the grizzly pollution of Tehran, the smoggy trafficky belching heart of Iran, but this was not to be. Having visited twice before, we knew what the big place was mostly about. Or so we had been led to believe.
Another visa hunt, that would have made Marco Polo burn crimson with pride, ended up requiring three trips to the capital to tease those special sticky stamps from the avaricious hands of the various consular bureaucrats at the Turkmen, Uzbek, Tajik and Chinese Embassies. All this time spent shuttling around T-town could have left us bereft and potentially in need of a lung transplant but through the kindness of Mahnaz and Mustafa (mum and dad of our friend, Laleh, from London) we were cocooned in gentle north Tehran and happily close to Embassy-stan, which softened the daily commutes.
During our daily pilgrimages to the embassies we explored Niyavaran Palace, former home to the Shah, which although full of fabulous Persian rugs, was surprisingly modest for the so-called king of kings. We later discovered that our friend Mr Funman had run around these grounds as a little boy in the late 1950’s, as the son of the Shah’s tailor. Our visit to the Iranian Film Museum was another highlight, with added relevance for us, given our enjoyable stay with a cinematic family dynasty of film-makers in Mashad.
But most importantly stalking the embassies meant something dearly beloved was in daily grasp. Glorious Havij Bastanti. Literally, carrot ice-cream.
This is what they do…… A glass is filled with traditional goopy Saffron flavoured ice-cream made with whole pistachios and a smidge of rose water. This already heavenly collaboration is taken to the final level (“Hasht behesht” – “Eighth heaven” – Iranians trump bog-standard old “Seventh heaven”) by drowning the ice-cream in oceans of freshly zuzzhed carrot juice. We swear that each time this concoction touches our lips world peace seems eminently feasible and right around the corner.
While we have both preferred cycling life far from the cities, the lure of Havij Bastanti seemed to bring us back repeatedly to urban centres, where the road-side galleries of glimmering fruit-blenders that we know and love would deliver our next hit of the good stuff. Or freshly squeezed melon, blackberry, strawberry, pomegranate or any other delicious fruit juice you care to mention. Iran is a truly blessed land! For the cyclist, food and drinks are the fuel that we obsess over, as you doubtlessly have noticed. But enough of this. We have spoken too long without mention of the other preoccupation of the cycle tourer: traffic.
You cannot cycle 2500km across the breadth of Iran without paying tribute to the lunacy that the average Iranian road-user displays with reckless abandon every time they get behind the wheel of a car. Of all the 16 countries we have passed through to date, the millions of licence-holding Iranians, who extraordinarily are permitted to drive, are categorically without question or a glimmer of a doubt the worst of the worst. We could continue to joke about the absurdity of their practices for page after page were it not for the real-life tragic consequences of their risk-taking on the roads.
In 2006 more than 28,000 people in Iran died (more than any other country per capita) as a result of road traffic “accidents” (This is surely the wrong word given the deliberately dangerous decisions that drivers take), a figure that President Ahmadinejad described as “below our nation’s dignity”. Of all people, you might think, Mr A has been best placed to do something about it considering his PhD in Traffic Management! How curious that a training in understanding the utter chaos on the roads could skill one for life at the top of the political tree. Hmmm…
Our knowledge of the above statistics was shockingly brought home to us with the tragic news that the father of one of our kind hosts, who days before our arrival had been hospitalised due to a car crash, had in fact died. Political pronouncements and the odd increased speeding fine have done little if anything to improve road safety here. The only glimmer of wisdom so far appears to be the cap (250cc) on the power of motorbikes (a very common form of transport which regularly and precariously carries a full family of 4!).
The consequence for us of all this was that, somewhat counter-intuitively, we began to seek out the motorways on which to cycle as these roads tended to have wide hard-shoulders and better asphalt. The secondary roads were at times frighteningly narrow and often busy. The roads in the wilderness were pleasant, however, and the lesson for us was simple: – the middle way is not the best way. It’s all or nothing.
One such small country road led us to the generous home of an English teacher and a day spent with him and his family not only afforded Francesca the chance to sup her favourite Iranian meal of Khoresht Fesenjun (a thick and rich chicken, pomegranate and walnut stew) but also provided us with many answers as to how Mr Ahmadinejad has retained his political power base and that of the forces of his brand of political conservatism.
Over the course of 5 hours feasting, we discovered how Mr A had ensured a stream of funds directly into the homes of certain supportive lower middle-class families (rather than putting it to use for public projects (health, education etc). And this appears to be where much of Iran’s current oil revenue has gone. Presidential mismanagement in many areas of government were simply overlooked (“He’s courageous…. Yes there have been mistakes, but he’s only human. Like us”). When we asked why the family thought there had been such strong opposition to Mr A when disputes arose about the legitimacy of his 2009 re-election, the response was swift and straight-faced, “yes, but it’s only the educated people in the country who do not like him and were protesting”.
As the meal continued, we also learnt that our host was a member of the Basij (known for their brutal treatment of those who transgress the rules of the Islamic Republic: – women’s head scarf too far back, singing in the street, vocal criticism of the government etc). The Basiji are the ‘moral’ enforcers on the street. They are also those who inform the authorities of potential trouble-makers or insurrectionary elements within the community. What also became apparent, however, is that this ‘volunteer’ group that belongs to (and reports to) the religious establishment (Sepah), often join up because obtaining employment or entrance to a university course is dependent upon so doing, and nigh-on impossible without. Membership also enables men to reduce the 24 months of compulsory military service down to 6. Interestingly throughout the entire meal, the men sat quietly while the women (all chadored inside the home) vociferously defended the regime and its strictures. Three minutes later they were whisking Francesca off into a bedroom to show her their wedding photo albums (all taken in a studio, by a female photographer and for female eyes only of course). My my, what make-up, what bouffants, what crevasse-like depths of cleavage on display!
After almost 350km of Caspian capers we began slowly to ascend to the sashaying yellowy barley-esque (not actually sure what it was) fields of Iran’s north-eastern Turkmen tribal areas, with the Kopet Dag mountains fanning out as the perfect frontier between the Arians of Iran and the Turkmen of Turkmenistan. Here we did not dawdle, save for the usual libations of choice, as the sea-side cool winds – that had puffed irritatingly against us now for weeks – were beginning to fade and we could feel that summer days, pregnant with heat were near by.
The arrival of summer and the 45-degree temperatures left us desperately seeking ways to cool down during the heat of the day (10am – 6pm!) We found a 34th use for our ortlieb sink – a miniature paddling pool to soothe the feet – but one day in Minudasht there was nothing we could do to escape. We found shade but the shade sizzled over 45 degrees, the ground shimmered underfoot and the heat stroke struck.
Luckily the Iranian Red Crescent compound was just a few desperate cranks of the pedal away and a kind paramedic instantaneously had Francesca on a saline drip – trapped while he showed her photos of the Royal Wedding on his phone!
As we sit typing deep in Central Asia, the delights of Iran are receding fast. We are constantly nostalgic for the incredible people, the food, the tea (chai, chai, delicious black chai) and of course above all, the havij bastani. We wonder what the future holds for this country.
One wise Iranian theorised that Iran, over the last 30 years, has paid its debt to the religious establishment and its time to move on. People have come to realise that a mullah’s robes do not imbue him with super-natural powers to govern without the elitism, self-interest and incompetence that are familiar to civilian rule. We share the view expressed in the comments to Part 1 that while the root cause of a number of the problems facing Iran are due to external meddling, things will only improve here through the will of the Iranian people and not because of foreign intervention. In the meantime, we will watch on with interest as the manteaus get shorter and shorter and the headscarves slip further and further back….