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


Anonymous said...

wow, totally awesome experience! Take care, Hannah

Noushin said...

welcome to Iran

Anonymous said...

Je suis Laurence (french), nous nous sommes rencontrés 2 fois à Tehran, last time au musée (bijoux), je commencais juste mon voyage.
Je vous suivrai sur ce blog qui est une pure invitation au rêve ... depuis 2006 ! et non 2013.
Je vous sais en vadrouille sur vos 2 roues. Belle route où que vous soyez.
Je vous suis à distance ... sans pédaler !

Christina said...

Wow. I am amazed and overwhelmed how friendly and welcoming people in Iran are. Your adventure sounds great!

Christina from City Sea Country