Along the Caspian Coast

Three Days in Tabriz

We were looking forward to Tabriz, we had heard that the weather was cool (er) and we had two full days of rest planned there. By chance we rode into the city on Friday, so there was virtually no traffic (things really shut down on Fridays) as we made our way to the very centre of Tabriz. On the road from Marand we saw several Iranian cyclists, in full spandex cycling gear, which was a nice surprise. We heard later that Tabriz has quite a road-cycling scene.

Our hotel (the Hotel Azerbayjan) was impersonal but it came with air-conditioning, a western-style bathroom and a free breakfast so the fact that they had exceedingly disinterested staff was easily overlooked. There were 4 other foreign tourists staying in the hotel, (they turned out to be the only foreigners we would see for the next 2 weeks).

Tabriz's main attraction is its bazaar, the largest covered bazaar in the world, for centuries it was one of the most important trade centres in Asia. It is a hub of activity and still a truly working bazaar, with absolutely nothing (save for a few carpet vendors) geared towards foreign tourists. The Tabriz Bazaar is exactly how we pictured a Middle Eastern market and we loved it.   The covered halls of the Tabriz Bazaar

Outside the Tabriz Bazaar

Tabriz's second biggest attraction is the Blue Mosque, which is a bit of a misnomer. It used to be blue.   The blue part of the Blue Mosque

After sight-seeing, we used our newly purchased Iranian cell phone to contact Hamed, a former professional road cyclist who had agreed to meet up with us and show us around the city. Hamed came to pick us up at our hotel from where we drove to El-Goli Park (definitely the number one tourist destination for Iranians). We had traditional Tabrizi food, tasted pickled garlic for the first time and had tea overlooking the park. Hamed suggested that we might want to consider altering our planned route to Tehran. Our route had us avoiding climbing over the Alborz Mountains, but we would be continuing to cycle through desert with very few towns along the way. Our friends John and Imran had been robbed by fake police officers a few weeks earlier along this route, so we were eager to hear suggestions of alternate routes. The new route would have us cut towards the Caspian Sea, following the coast. The appeal of trees and sea was enough to overcome our hesitation at having to climb over a mountain range twice.

To the Caspian Coast

Our first few days of riding from Tabriz were pretty dreary, but not difficult. More desert scenery with not much in the way of suitable shady spots to take breaks. Traffic on the road continued to be largely made up of Iranian holidayers, who often stopped to photograph us, share food or ask us if we needed assistance. We spent our first two nights in road-side hotels above restaurants, which we were happy to find. Although we would have been perfectly fine sleeping in city parks where many of the Iranian tourists spend the night (we just wouldn't have gotten any sleep). As one young Iranian put it “we aren't crazy enough to spend money on a hotel”.   The scenery for most of the ride from Tabriz to Gilan Province

  Our road-side hotel in Bostanabad

On our third day of riding we ended up in the largish city of Ardebil where shortly after arriving we were offered accommodation by two different young locals. After turning down the first offer, we felt that the second offer must have been a sign that we weren't meant to sleep in the hotel. We were actually standing in front of one debating whether it was too expensive when we were spotted. We agreed to follow Bahman, an avid couch-surfer who spoke good English. He led us to his family's home a few minutes from the city centre, where we had our own room. None of his family members seemed surprised by our presence. The only problem with being hosted is that we felt obliged to socialize and to stay up late, even if we had a big day of cycling and a very early morning ahead of us. Being the only woman I was able to go to bed early, but Yann was forced to stay up with the many men who had showed up to hang out (probably specifically with him). This began a string of hosting that didn't end until we arrived to Tehran!

We had contacted a host, Azim, who lived near Astara (the Caspian town at the border with Azerbaijan). Using Warm Showers (the cyclists' version of Couchsurfing) we had connected with lots of potential hosts along the coast and Azim was the first who had responded to our request. From Ardebil we had a 110km ride to get to his place. The ride from Ardebil included a 1500m descent from the desert into the green, forested province of Gilan. While this would normally increase our average speed, it took us hours to get down the side of the mountain. The area is extremely popular with local tourists and the traffic is completely backed along the road in both directions. Vendors line the road selling fresh nuts and berries, flagging down all passing vehicles. We were literally mobbed by the hundreds of Iranian tourists picnicking or driving along the highway. By the time we got to Astara we had posed for dozens of photos and had been stopped along the road dozens of times. We had been offered food, drink, phone numbers, e-mails.   One of many photo stops along the descent to Astara

  A particularly chaotic photo stop along the same descent

With 30km left to Azim's place we thought we were finally free to start pedalling but right as we were leaving the city we were stopped by a journalist who wanted to do a piece on us. He ended up interviewing and filming us for over an hour, getting shots of us riding along the highway in different spots. It didn't help that he didn't speak a word of English. Who knows what got lost in translation in that interview!   TV interview in Astara

Once the interview was over we were stopped by 3 different English teachers in each of the small villages that we passed (they would phone each other to say that we heading their way). Right before we finally pulled into Azim's place, we were stopped by the sweetest family from Southern Iran who were so concerned about us, they asked if we needed money!

More Iranian Hospitality

We were very grateful to finally enter the peaceful home with views of the sea and the surrounding kiwi groves. Azim and his family have hosted hundreds of tourists and have an entire floor dedicated to guests. We were given lots of privacy and had our own bathroom and kitchen. Nonetheless, Azim's wife cooked us most our meals! What a relax!   With Azim and his three boys at the Caspian Sea

From Azim's we cycled to our next host in the town of Talesh, only 60km away. We were hosted by Sam and his wife Zahra, a lovely young couple who showered us with delicious meals and even bought our groceries for the next day of cycling. The big surprise however, was that Sam and Zahra run a private English academy and we were invited to speak to the students. Classes run from 6-9pm every night in three one-hour sessions. We were rotated in 10-15 minute periods between each of the classes. It was exhausting but the students were adorable and hilarious. We happened to be there on a girl's night (boys and girls alternate days). Each class had a few outspoken girls who really kept the conversations going. My favourite comment of the night was “thank you being clean, a lot of tourists who come to visit are very dirty”. I thought about how stinky and filthy we would have been if we hadn't had the chance to go to Sam's ahead of time and shower (and borrow clothes!).   Visiting English classes in the coastal city of Talesh

After classes, we were greeted by Azim and his family who had been invited to dine with us at Sam and Zahra's. We had a huge meal featuring roasted chicken stuffed with walnuts and garlic and various other treats. Sam and Azim had spoken multiple times on the phone (due to their various hosting obligations) but this was the first time they had actually met in person! Sam lives in a house right next to his parents and multiple siblings. Every night the children and grandchildren head to Sam's parents to share tea together. Once Azim and his family had left we were invited to take part in the evening ritual and meet Sam's parents and some of his siblings, a highlight of our visit.   Dinner at Sam and Zahra's with Azim and his family

The next morning Zahra sent us off with a bag full of left-overs and groceries for the road. We had a picnic in a pine tree grove along the highway. We rode to Rasht, where we had yet another host waiting for us! The previous night at dinner, when Azim had heard that we didn't have a host yet he immediately phone his friend Javid in Rasht to arrange our stay!    Leaving Sam and Zahra's place 

Stats for Tabriz to Rasht:

Days of cycling: 6
Days of rest: 3
Kilometres cycled: 484
Metres climbed: 2664
Cycle-tourists crossed on the road: 1

Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop Expedition Support

Welcome to Iran

We left the Armenian border town of Agarak early in the morning not knowing how smoothly immigration procedures would be. We had been told that the border operated 24 hours a day but when we arrived the immigration hall was empty and there were people sleeping outside with their bags. We poked around the buildings and saw two sleeping employees and not much else. Shortly after settling down on the sidewalk to wait for opening time a group of Iranians showed up, woke up the employees and got things moving. The border is in fact open 24 hours a day but only if you can be forceful enough to get someone to stamp you out of Armenia.

On the Iranian side things were up and running and everything went fairly smoothly, although Yann was brought into a separate room and asked for money “for photocopies”. He managed to get away with 1000 AMD (a few dollars) but was a bit freaked out. The border guard also stamped him in and out of Iran which we didn't notice until later, thank goodness because we would have worried about it the whole time.

We had a pretty straightforward day of riding planned, about 70km along the Iranian-Armenian border, following the Aras River to the town of Jolfa, location of a border crossing linking Iran to the Azerbaijani enclave of Nakhchivan. The area is sensitive due to the proximity with the Armenia-Azerbaijan border and there are guard towers along the highway every few kilometres. We had read not to take any pictures, so we have nothing to show of the imposing mountain scenery along the river valley.

There was considerable traffic along the road, mainly Iranians on holiday (you can tell by the packed car with suitcases on the roof rack) heading to and from Armenia or Azerbaijan. Almost every car slowed down to wave, ask us where we were from, take a video or just yell out “Welcome to Iran!”. On several occasions there were backed up cars along the highway from cars driving next to us for so long. It was hilarious although sometimes a little bit nerve wracking as people aren't exactly used to driving with cyclists.

In Jolfa, having some difficulty finding a hotel, we were spotted by a local English teacher and her father who pulled over to help us. We checked into a room above a busy local restaurant which we would never have found without their help. In the restaurant we ate next to a Tehrani family who gave us their contact information in case we needed any help while we were in Iran. The employee at the front desk wanted to take us out for a picnic in the evening (we were way too tired to do anything but lie in our air-conditioned room).   Jasmine and her father who helped us find a hotel in Jolfa

Our next destination was Marand, a city halfway between Jolfa and Tabriz. Having spoken to other cyclists who had travelled the same route we had been told to “expect a welcome from Akbar in Marand”. It wasn't clear how or when this was going to happen but we headed off not thinking too much about it.There wasn't very much climbing on either of our first two days in Iran, but the riding was still difficult due to the heat and the lack of services on the roadside. In the 70km from the Armenian border to Jolfa we passed one small town. On our ride to Marand, there was a similar arid, hot, emptiness which can be a little bit disconcerting when you're cycling. We were able to find food and water at a small mosque on the side of the road, but only after 40km of pretty lonely riding.   The road between Jolfa and Marand

  The scenery isn't overly varied

About 20km from Marand a car pulled up in front of us and out popped a small Iranian man who walked up to us, handed us two bananas and exclaimed “Welcome to Iran, I am Akbar”. He told us he'd meet us in Marand and hopped back into his car. About an hour later, on the outskirts of the city, we spotted Akbar cycling towards us. He had for us two orange drinks, a bottle of ice water and a photo album. His album was full of photos of the cyclists that he has greeted in the last 17 months (most holding their orange drinks). Among the photos, we spotted our friends Imran and Jon (UK) and Andy and Rosy (Switzerland). Akbar also handed us a carefully hand-written page with contacts all over Iran, part of a cyclist support network established by a group of Iranians. Akbar has taken it upon himself to greet every single cyclist that comes through Marand. We were only the 2nd and 3rd Canadians he has had welcomed but the 186th and 187th cyclists!   The kind and amazing Akbar! Greeter of cyclists

We rode through town with Akbar leading the way, it seemed like everyone in Marand knew him. People smiled and waved like we were on parade. Many taxi drivers have Akbar's number, so when they spot a cyclist they can summon him for an official greeting. Amazing! We were escorted right to our hotel door. In the evening Akbar came to pick us up (in his car) for a tour of the city. He and a friend treated us to kebabs and corn on the cob and tried to get us to come to a wedding. We felt bad turning down an invitation and going back to the hotel so early (it wasn't actually early, but Iranians seem to stay up really late) but we were seriously tired. Smiling, positive Akbar didn't seem to mind at all and dropped us off a the hotel, making sure that the staff knew to feed us dinner. We felt overwhelmed by his kindness.

But alas! It didn't stop there. On our way to Tabriz the next morning, Akbar pulled up with a picnic breakfast ready for us. And, knowing the route so well, he had planned it so that we would eat at the top of the day's only major climb. We had a breakfast or Iranian flatbread, cheese, jams, helva and tea before our downhill ride to Tabriz. What a welcome to Iran!   Akbar found us on the road to bring us breakfast

Stats for Agarak to Tabriz:

Days of cycling: 3
Days of rest: 0
Kilometres cycled: 216
Metres climbed: 2285
Cycle-tourists crossed on the road: 0

Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop Expedition Support