After having spent considerable time and money sorting out the bureaucracy involved in obtaining an Iranian visa, and then cutting short our time in Turkey to get here on time, it was with heavy hearts and dull resignation that we processed this next piece of news from our hotel manager in Tabriz:
“Visa finish, look!”
We looked. Visa expiration date: 13th September, today.
Hang on a minute, didn’t we expect this was going to happen? I even emailed the embassy to clear up whether the expiry date shown was the last possible date we had to be in the country by, or whether that was when the visa expired. It didn’t seem clear back home, so I emailed them, didn’t I?
I check my email from the kindle. Yep, I had had this reply from them: “You can enter Iran until the expiry date of your visa. If you need more validity, you can refer to an Iranian consulate.” The guy was adamant though, that we needed to extend it. He phoned the tourist office, but it was closed til tomorrow. Nothing we could do but wait. We really didn’t fancy having any affairs with the police so held our breath and crossed our fingers until the morning, when a short walk to the tourist office cleared things up. The chaps inside spoke no English, and in fact were just standing in while the main man was on a tourist visit elsewhere, but they put Joel on the phone to him, and he assured us there was no problem, that this was a common misunderstanding, we have 30 days from the date of entry, which must be, and was, inside the validity period. Phew! That sorted we had a quick juice and packed up ready to hit the road again. Tabriz didn’t seem to have much to offer, unless you’re into polyester and nylon and crowded bazaars, in which case job’s a good-un.
Leaving the city was almost as painful as arriving, where the roads had been filthy thanks to three lanes of smoking trucks, and a cement factory. Leaving was all uphill, and seemingly motorway. Only one thing can sort you out in times like these; and that’s eating! Out came a cake, which we were devouring hungrily when we saw something wonderful heading our way…. A cycle-tourist!!! Bloomin’ ‘eck, it’d been a while. We offered him some cake and did the old Cilla Black on Blind Date: What’s yer name, where’d yer come from? It’s our Henry from Germany! Applause. And where’s he ridden from? Scandinavia, and alone! Wowzers, he’s hard-core we thought. He told us he’s a music teacher, and always rode with his headphones in. Hmm, that was pretty appealing considering the relentless traffic noise. We rode on together, and stopped for a break at the top of a big hill where a truck driver offered us chay and a puff on his opium pipe, whilst Henry told us of his plans to write a book of his adventure. Yes I did say opium pipe, we did, of course, politely decline, even though he motioned to Joel it might make him go faster… The penalty for using any kind of drug in Iran is death. Which brought us on to the public executions in the stadium in Tehran… I have always taken for granted that people from the West would share my opinion on such a topic. Henry proved to be a little different, telling us he’d like to go and spectate at such an event… I almost choked on my chay, and tentatively asked the reasons for such an interest in public execution. He said it would make a good story for his book, he wants to go and watch the faces of the other spectators. I had no time for further probing, as we were soon whizzing down the hill, fast enough without any opium. We stopped in the little town at the bottom, where the boys had a kebab in a truck stop and I checked out the alternatives in the next restaurant, armed with one phrase in Farsi from the phrase book on my kindle: Giyahar hastam, I’m vegetarian. I went in and told the guy this, and he beckoned me into the kitchen where he had a black-eyed-pea stew on the hob, perfect! A little misunderstanding with the money made me think I was being ripped off and I attempted to haggle him down; at which the guy grabbed my arm and tried to push me a bit. So I paid him and took my food to the next restaurant to join Joel and Henry. The crowd that gathered around us were all quite sweet, and after dinner I asked them if they could recommend a camping spot nearby. The kebab-shop-owner motioned that we should sleep in the shop on one of the day-beds. The prospect of running water, a toilet and not putting a tent up in the dark was an appealing one, so we graciously accepted, giggling at the thought. We’d be sharing the space with a smiley old boy, who would spend the evening making kebabs for tomorrow and bringing us chay. The owner would go home and be back in the morning. One of the accumulated crowd cottoned on to the fact we were heading East and offered us a ride to Tehran. Tempted, we declined on the grounds that it was slightly off our route, and also not wanting to lose face in front of new-found cycle-companion, who was obviously not going to be up for ‘cheating’. When Henry returned from the bathroom however, to our astonishment, he leapt at the chance! He hastily said his goodbyes and off they set into the night; 500km+ to Tehran! We were so amazed we chuckled about it all evening. We started to wish we’d gone with him however, when I was woken in the night by the old man leaning over Joel and stroking my hair, which had been revealed by my headscarf slipping as I slept. A little freaked out, I woke Joel and we spoke in whispers of what to do; I didn’t sleep much after that, trying to establish in my mind his motives for doing such a thing. In Iran, I knew that touching another man’s wife would be a serious crime; but reasoning from my own set of morals and not by that of the Qu’ran, I came to feel sorry for the old guy, imagining that he had likely had no female contact for many years, and believing that it might have been more paternal than sexual. This added to my fury with the strictness of the regime.
We left at daybreak, without even looking him in the eye, which was a shame because he’d been so sweet and hospitable the previous evening. We rode out of the town, and stopped to eat fresh flat bread and honey, where we discussed the night’s happenings, a little disenchanted to say the least…
We soldiered on but at lunch time (after i’d forced down a hamburger, nothing else on offer for veggies!) we rolled along a queue of trucks waiting for diesel, asking if anyone had space for us. Lonely Planet had warned us that hitching a ride in Iran was fairly unheard of, and might turn out more expensive than a bus, this seemed to be true, so begrudgingly we turned our backs on them and continued along the highway, coughing and cursing. After that little town, the roads took a turn for the better, and if it hadn’t been for the extreme headwind almost blowing us back up the hill, we might have had an easy day of it. Nevertheless, the traffic was less frequent, and the scenery was beautiful. We pushed on down the valley and found ourselves a lovely little spot to camp, hidden sufficiently from sight to allow us some much-needed breathing space, at the bottom of a cliff on a dwindling river-bed. This space was exactly what we needed, and after a dinner of rice and chick peas with soy sauce, we relished the long-awaited opportunity for some quality shut-eye.