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What's it like to cycle in Iran?

Ask Anna Grebosz - she went solo. Defying the myths of women cycling in Iran and embarking on a solo journey through the country, Anna Grebosz cycl... Read more
What's it like to cycle in Iran?

Ask Anna Grebosz - she went solo.

Defying the myths of women cycling in Iran and embarking on a solo journey through the country, Anna Grebosz cycled for 2000km from Tehran to Bandar e Pol. She met the locals, admired Persian architecture, ate the sweetest apricots and enjoyed the dazzling shapes dancing in the shimmering sun on blue-tiled minarets in Isfahan's Naqsh-e Jahan Square. Her friends thought she was mad but Anna was left puzzled how the European stereotype of Iranian society could be so far from the truth?

Read about her journey...


“Cycling through Iran? Are you mad?” reads the text from my friend who just found out from the social media that I’m planning to solo cycle 2000km through the land .“Please, could you re-consider your plan” she pleads. But I have no time to re-consider, my plane to Tehran leaves in 4 hours! I put my phone away, jump out of bed and pick up neatly folded “manteau”, the long loose coat and a head scarf – the mandatory dress code in Iran. Shoe-horning the little belongings I am taking into the two tiny paniers, I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror. How am I going to cycle 30 days wearing this brown oversized dress that resembles giant bin bag and how is my headscarf going to stay under the cycling helmet?

I travel to the centre of the capital to meet Bijan, a passionate cyclist from Tehran who I’ve been in touch with through an online bike touring network. A few minutes later, I find myself sitting in a coffee shop with this charismatic man and his friends, all eager to find out what is the foreign woman on a bike doing in Iran. As I talk about my plans to solo cycle all the way to the Persian Gulf, I can sense a slight tension around the table. Hollow silence follows my question for the top tips on cycling in this country, only to be interrupted a minute later by the waiter with an impressive moustache who’s been eavesdropping from behind the counter. He throws some comments in Farsi, which sparks up a heated conversation I do not understand a word of. A few minutes later, Bijan turns to me and announces that tomorrow he will take me for a “test cycle” in Tehran to give me an idea what one should expect cycling in Iran.

165.JPGThe following afternoon, I step outside the hotel and as I get my bike out of the box to assemble it, a small crowd gathers around me, carefully watching every move I make. Loud observations in Farsi are being made and the heads are being shaken. Now and again someone says “Madame, you need help?” My bike is ready and the crowd slowly disperses, having taken numerous photos of the bike. I stare at the busy road of this largest city in the Western Asia. The yellow taxis push and barge, breaks squeal, groups of giggling school girls stream across the road not paying faintest bit of notice to the beeping lorries, cart with a mount of watermelons is being pushed into the oncoming traffic. I start doubting myself -maybe I am mad to cycle here? That moment Bijan arrives on his racing bike and it’s too late to turn around. I get on my bike and off we go. My jaw-clenching nerves take control for a moment as I narrowly miss oncoming taxi and nearly knock the elderly pedestrian in a black headscarf to an early grave. I try my best not to lose the sight of Bijan’s green helmet and it’s not long until I manage to relax, my hands stop clenching the handle bars and I feel myself breathing as normal. We ride through the maze of the choked streets, down the alleyways, across the bazaar and finally, after 40km we reach the Sorkheh Hesar Park with my limbs and pride intact. It’s Thursday, the start of weekend here, so the park is busy with young Tahranis having picnics, listening to the music on their phones and playing outdoor games. We sit down on the grass watching the sun setting over the capital. If not for the call to prayer cracking through the loudspeakers, it feels like a summer evening in the Clapham Park. Bijan reveals that he’s had doubts about my solo cycle, but it turns out I can ride a bike and since I can cope the traffic in Tehran, I can ride anywhere in the country. Excited, proud and happy to have survived this initiation, I raise my hand to give Bijan “high five” just to be met with his polite, but firm remark that Iranian men do not touch women unless they’re a family member. First of many lessons on complex Persian etiquette I’m to learn.

071.JPGIt’s not long until I experience the mighty “Taroof” – the Iranian cultural phenomenon in which excessive politeness requires you to persistently refuse something that is offered to you in order not to appear greedy. Cycling South on almost traffic-free carriageway, I frequently stop at the roadside shops to get my new favourite beverage, Doogh – local drinking yogurt with mint. I put handful of Rials down on the counter when the shop owner barely looking at me pushes it back toward me, waving me off. I push it back to him and the notes get passed back and forth to my growing frustration and what it seems like to the shop owner’s entertainment. Finally, I grab the money and storm out of the shop with the bottles of Doogh in both hands wondering why on earth I have not paid for my purchase. When I call Bijan to tell him about my experience, he explains that before accepting anything in Iran you have to “do Taroof” – a game of communication when the players should convincingly say “no” several times before it’s acceptable to say “yes”. This unique ritual is deeply rooted in Persian culture and it dictates every social interaction in the country.

I am to master the art of “Taroof” in the coming days when, one morning as I cycle the carriageway toward Isfahan, I am suddenly overtaken by another cyclist nonchalantly passing by on a bike so old it wouldn’t even qualify for the Italian vintage bike race “Eroica”. Turns out he’s a student from Tabriz travelling to the Isfahan Festival of Poetry. We bike together for the next four days, helping each other with the language and frequent bike punctures. We share food, we wild-camp in the fields, we exchange stories about our countries and in the evening when we make bonfire with the small amount of wood we find, I watch his eyes twinkling behind the thick red-rimmed glasses while he passionately recites work of famous Omar Khayyam “Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise! One thing at least is certain – this life flies; One thing is certain and the rest is Lies; The Flower that once has blown for ever dies”. During the mesmerising moment like this, it’s easy to believe that Iran was once considered the capital of culture and the numerous inspiring Persian poets have revolutionised literature of both East and the West.

300km later, we reach Isfahan. I cannot confine the excitement- at least I visit the place said to be the most beautiful city in the world! I spend a few days exploring this old Iranian capital, roaming its quirky alleyways, taking rests in the Persian gardens and people watching from the numerous bohemian coffee shops. Every afternoon I return to the same place – Naqsh-e Jahan Square. I sit on the bench in the middle of the one of largest squares in the world and stare at the dazzling shapes dancing in the shimmering sun on blue-tiled minarets.

335_cr.pngAfter a few days of sightseeing I miss my bike, so I decide to head down to the Zāyandé-Rūd river, which flows 400km from the Zagros Mountains across the centre of Isfahan ending in the salt lake South of the city. Having read stories about local politician proclaiming female cycling as a threat to morality and ordering the arrest of all riding women, I walk my bike to the river, with only mild simmering nerves. I stand in the middle of the Khaju Bridge that serves as splendid example of the remarkable Persian architecture. I scan the cycling path for the people in the uniform, when my eyes meet another cycling and hold on…it’s a woman! I jump on my bike and, to the amusement of the passersby I cycle like a maniac shouting “Salam” after the blue headscarf on the bike. This is how I meet Nahid, who then takes me for the best fruit-shake in the city and tells me about how Isfahan, in order to address the growing pollution, introduced “Car free Tuesday” when all commuters are encourage to cycle to work. She talks about the women cycling club and unofficial female- only bike rallies. Nahid invites me to her house for a cup of tea. After some skilfully performed “Taroof”, I accept and off we go cycling scarf by scarf to her home, where I meet her mum and several sisters. I’m being spoiled with ginger beer, dates, nuts and the sweetest apricots I’ve ever tasted. I am presented with the wedding photo albums, educated on Iranian marriage procedures and asked numerous questions about my boyfriend. Before I know it, it’s evening time and I’m asked the ever-dreaded question if I can stay for dinner. Being a vegetarian traveller, I have learnt to tactically avoid meals times when visiting local families. I politely explain to Nahid that I cannot join for dinner, because I don’t eat meat, to which replies that her sister is a vegan and it’s her turn to cook tonight. Once again, I am left puzzled how does the European stereotype of Iranian society could be so far from the truth?

Leaving Isfahan, I head further South and the topography changes dramatically. From the lush, green rice paddies into the dry rugged terrain with intensely red soil. The climate also changes and I have to alter my daily cycling routine to avoid the blistering midday heat. I cycle early mornings and late afternoons spending the middle of the days in the local mosques where female- only sections are usually air-conditioned. Missing the sweltering weather outside I sit on the carpet with the Iranian women, share watermelon, practise my Farsi and have lots of photos taken.

297.JPGAfter 29 days, the inevitable moment comes. With 24h left before my visa expires, I wake early morning to cycle to the port of Bandar e Pol and catch the ferry to the Qeshm Island from where I will take 20min flight to Dubai and then head home. I ride the wide empty road towards the sea. The sun had barely risen and the place has the subdued quiet of a dawn. The moist air feels fresh and new, the gentle breeze caresses my skin. I marvelled at the glistering reflection of the sun and the sea and a thrilling feeling of awe sweeps over me. With breath paused in my lungs, I wish the time would halt. I am not ready to leave. I approach the empty junction and in a spur of a moment, I take a right turn uphill towards a small finishing town, away from the port. I slowly ride the main street and quietly say my good byes. To the fisherman that just arrived with their catch offloading the trays of fish gasping for air. To the baker selling Sangak, the local flatbread, which soon will appear on the breakfast tables. To the smiley group of boys heading to the mosque for their morning prayers. To the skinny shepherd walking his skinny goats to the field.

Loud honk of the ferry tells me it’s time to go, so I ride down to the dock and straight onboard without putting my foot down, which causes hysterical laugh among the crew members. As I sit down and watch the Iranian cost getting smaller and smaller, I think back to the text from my friend. It is mad to go cycling in Iran? It would be mad not to...

>> Find out more about Exploring Iran by Bicycle Holiday

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