– The adventures of a solo round the world cyclist –

Day 910 (Iran Day 11)

Becoming part of another family is one of the most beautiful and heart-warming experiences I have ever had. My time in Zanjan is coming to an end and tomorrow it will sadly arrive there. While sitting in the living room with the family tonight, I became overwhelmed by a discussion about my departure and I couldn’t stop myself from crying from the simple fact that I had to leave these beautiful people. This month is important for many Muslim people as it commemorates Imam Hossein. The next few days are especially special and tomorrow night the family fly to Qom. They said they will cancel their tickets and rebook them for the next day just so I could spend one more day with them. I couldn’t let this happen on my account. I explained that these feelings will be the same whether it is Friday or Saturday and that we would just be delaying the inevitable. So, tomorrow I am to leave. I think it would be difficult to understand what it is like unless you have the experience yourself. Even with my previous experiences of sharing the lives of others across the world so far, this one has surprised me and expanded/deepened the level to which I can form strong bonds with people who I never knew existed. If I lived here, there is no doubt these guys would be my family. It makes me think about what I want in life. It feels like it would be incredibly easy for me to continue living here. But then my time here has been void of practical matters (a job for one). I am just a tourist in a foreign country. Yet at the same time I have become a member of an Iranian family (and a Zanjanian family in particular). Rather than be a simple observer, I have become a part of this place. I can honestly say I have fallen in love with these people, like I would love my family and close friends back home.

After a nice sleep in, Alireza and I had another day out together, getting a few things done in town before heading out to a dam, where we skimmed some rocks and tried to throw others as far as we could. On the way home we joined Sahar and Akbar in picking up Mohammad Mahdi from kindergarden. After an enjoyable afternoon at home, we (joined by Narges and Mali) piled into two cars and headed back towards Soltaniyeh (where I was yesterday) to visit Akbar’s family farm, where apples, potatoes and alfalfa are grown. A series of fish ponds are in construction. After a walk around I joined Sahar and Mali in the apple orchard and began to help them pick fruit. This became an all-family affair when we were joined by Aliresar, Akbar, Mohammad Mahdi and Aniya. I ate a few apples in the process – organically grown with less than two seconds between being picked and bitten = easily the most delicious apples I have ever had the pleasure of eating. We moved inside the farmhouse when it got dark. It was also incredibly cold. We hung out and feasted on chips before eating chicken on skewers with bread. At home we hung out some more. Some of us ate some more food to complete dinner. Narges showed me an album of her baby pictures. Aniya and Mohammad Mahdi run amok. We chatted and laughed and learned and loved.

My second family

Accommodation Home of lovely family
Distance ridden today 0km
Total distance ridden 23,975km
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Day 909 (Iran Day 10)

I am writing this at the same late time I wrote yesterday’s entry: 1am. Tonight I was treated to dinner at Sahar and Akbar’s house, enjoying a delicious spread of spaghetti, two types of soup, halva (much different from that which goes by the same name in Tajikistan), blue and purple layered jelly in a glass, and a fluoro pink milk cream ‘thing’. After these gastronomic delights, a bright green cake was delivered in front of me. It took me a few moments of admiring the awesome cake before I noticed the chocolate writing written around it on the plate on which it was served. ‘We love you Mark’, it read. I sent a photo of it to my parents, in a way testing to see if they were awake. They were, so we had a bit a chat session whereby everyone got to say hello to my parents on video chat. It was another very special night among great people.

During the day I had a very nice time seeing more sights, this time with Alirezar. First we visited the city’s Saltmen exhibit. On display are several mummified corpses of people who died within an ancient salt mine. One of the mummies was in very good condition and it’s posed showed that the individual (who was about 16 years old) was running or crawling to escape the tunnel collapse that buried and killed him. His clothes are largely intact and were obviously deigned to protect the skin while working with salt. Also with him were a couple of pottery vessels, one of which likely contained oil that he put on his skin to make sure it didn’t dry out. The mummies are at least 1,500 years old and may be as old as 2,300 years. We also visited another museum that displayed some of the handicrafts that Zanjan is famous for, including copper work and shoe-making.

After exploring the streets for a while, we returned home for a delicious lunch with Sahar, Akbar, Mohammad Mahdi and Aniya. I had a nap in the afternoon before being taken out of town by Alirezar to visit Soltaniyeh, which is famous for the Soltaniyeh Dome, a UNESCO World Heritage site comprising one of the largest brick structures in the world, built in 1302-12 AC and used as a mausoleum for the king who ordered its construction. It was certainly an impressive sight, especially in the waning light of the day when it was beautifully lit by both natural light and well-placed spotlights.

Apple farm

Accommodation Home of lovely family
Distance ridden today 0km
Total distance ridden 23,975km
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Day 908 (Iran Day 9)

It is 1am and I am just getting ready for bed after hosting a dinner party for fourteen people. What a job! Last night I said I would like to cook dinner for the family. After breakfast, I made a quick plan about what I was going to cook, then heading into the city on my bike. Firstly, I played tourist, exploring Rakhatshor-Khane (a beautifully public constructed laundry room built in the 1926) before heading over to the bazaar. Thus, at 12.30pm, my dinner preparations began. At the bazaar I bought enough vegetables to completely fill a large pannier, along with some chicken breasts. Doing so used up all of the money I was carrying except for about AU$0.30, so I had to return home. I dumped the food, grabbed more cash and then headed out again. My first stop was a bike shop where I bought a gel seat cover. Then I visited an awesome food joint that made a pretty amazing gourmet burger and fries. I accidently dropped the burger I was initially served, but was served a new one, despite my protests that I really didn’t mind that fact that some of the first one had hit the floor. I then began my hunt for the remaining ingredients I needed. I had to visit four shops and engage in some inventive translating exercises before I was able to gather everything. I arrived home again at 3pm. By this time Akbar and Sahar were home, along with Mohammad and Anya. I was treated to a delicious ‘lunch’, just managing to squeeze in what translates to “water-meat” on top of my earlier big meal. I have already forgotten the Persian name of the meal but it is special to Zanjan.

Straight after eating I began preparing dinner, and I didn’t really stop working until now. My first job was to make the base for the Banoffee pie that would form dessert. Then I made the caramel. When this was completed, I was informed that the family had invited five guests to join us for dinner, comprising four adults and one kid. Altogether, 14 people. I have never cooked for so many people. Besides the challenge of numbers, I was also challenged by the fact I was working in a foreign kitchen. And also by the fact that I wasn’t able to find all the ingredients for a specific recipe I had in mind, so I was basically just making a meal up. I was also stubborn enough to refuse any help. I started making the pie at 3.30pm, which means from then on I spent 9.5 hours working on hosting everything. Once I got the base with caramel in the fridge, I set about preparing two massive bowls full of salad. I was nearly done when I realised I better get the spuds on the boil for the mashed potato that would form the base of the main meal. Once these were on the stove, I was able to complete the salad dishes. I then turned my attention to the chicken. I wasn’t able to find boneless chicken breasts, so the first thing I had to do was debone the big pieces of chicken I bought. While cooking boneless chicken pieces in one pan, I cooked the meaty carcasses in another, wanting to start a broth for a sauce. I cut up some zucchinis and eggplants and cherry tomatoes and fried these in yet another pot. Things got a bit sketchy when I attempted to flavour the sauce. For this I relied on a variety of spices and random ingredients I could find in the kitchen. I accidentally used too much vinegar so spent a lot of time trying to rebalance the flavours.

I had been aiming for 9pm (when the family normally eats) and I had everything ready at 9.02pm. The trouble was that the guests were running late. Everything sat on the stove getting cool while we waited for them to arrive. Once two of them arrived, I rushed to get everything hot again, before serving out 12 dishes. The other two people came even later and ate separately. The guests were family – grandmother, aunty, uncle and cousins of Alirezar, Sahar and Narges (making four generations under the roof). Everything looked quite good served up, but I was very self-conscious about how it tasted. I realise that the host of a dinner party can never really enjoy the meal because they just think it’s bad and think that people are ‘just being nice’ when they say it is good. This is how it was for me tonight. Still, the plates were cleaned. The next challenge was getting the cream I’d found whipped. The home’s electric beater wasn’t working, so I had to try and whip it by hand. While the uncle who turned up later on his own caught up with his meal, I worked to beat the cream. I needed to call on help from others when my arm got tired. It probably took about 40 minutes and the work of many hands to get the cream slightly thick. I folded in bananas and finished the pie. We devoured it instantly. Again, I was paranoid people didn’t really like it, but it tasted the way it should. By this time it was after midnight. Definitely ready for bed right now.

Dinner party

Accommodation Home of lovely family
Distance ridden today 0km
Total distance ridden 23,975km
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Day 907 (Iran Day 8)

This morning I joined Sahar at her work in town (after dropping Mohammad Mahdi off to kindergarden) where I was able to borrow some internet for some outstanding tasks, such as organise my visa for Turkey and complete some more research on the possibility of entering Iraq. By mid-afternoon I was back at home, where I got on with washing my clothes. In the evening I joined Aliresar and Akbar at a swimming centre where we went for a swim in the male section. Again we stayed up chatting well into the night.

Zanjan

Accommodation Home of lovely family
Distance ridden today 0km
Total distance ridden 23,975km
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Day 906 (Iran Day 7)

Today was one of the hardest days I have had on the bike in a long while. Based on my assessment of the location of waterways on my contour-less Maps.me app, I was expecting/hoping to be rewarded with a downhill soon into the day. This wasn’t to be. The climb continued for more than ten kilometres. My body was on the brink of giving up the entire time. Of course, I was only 2km into the day when I got a flat tyre. In a way, this made things slightly easier as it turned everything into a bit of a farce to which I completely surrendered. Instead of worrying that the day might turn to shit, I could get on with facing the fact that the day had turned to shit and there was nothing I could do about it. No amount of positive thinking was going to turn things around. Once I’d accepted my fate for the day, I was able to put feelings of hardship aside and just get on with surviving. The 11km took me to an obvious peak, after which I faced a most enjoyable downhill. As soon as I crossed over the top I was able to cast aside my negativity and relax. The world was a nice place to be again. My pain and desperation had evaporated.

Such feelings of joy didn’t last very long. The downhill run that I expected/hoped would take me all the way to Zanjan ended after just a few kilometres. It’s been a long time since I have been on the verge of collapse from exhaustion, but I reached such a point today as I battled the hills that finally dropped into the city. I made my way downtown where I lay down in the shade of a tree within a small park. I’d made it.

From the lowest of lows, my day ended with a great high. Earlier in the day a couple of guys had pulled over to gift me with choc-milk and cake and ask me about who I was and where I was going. This was how I met Aliresar (the other guy being his driver). Ali invited me to stay in his home in Zanjan and we swapped contact details. He was visiting another town on business and would be returning to Zanjan later in the afternoon. By the time I had reached the small park I had a missed call from him. We got in touch and arranged a place to meet. I then followed Ali and his driver to the northern part of Zanjan where he lives. As we entered his neighbourhood I began to realise I was in for a treat. The area was obviously well-off. We stopped along a quiet tree-lined street in front of terraced townhouses. I could hardly believe my eyes as I entered the home Ali shares with his sister and parents. It felt palatial. The living area is open and lined with high-backed wood-framed chairs with decorative padding inlay. The wooden floors are covered in several carpets. The walls are wall-papered. The ceiling is decorated with several chandeliers that light up the space. The kitchen is large and well-appointed. At first I refused to sit down on the beautiful chairs, worried by dirty riding clothes would leave a stain. I eventually conceded and sat down, receiving a deliciously iced fruit drink. After being introduced to the wider family (Ali’s other sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew) I was able to make use of the bathroom and have a proper clean. Being in such a lovely home and surrounded by well-dressed people, I felt compelled to wear my nice trousers rather than my travel pants. Through the rest of the afternoon I had a lovely time getting to know my hosts. I disappeared for an hour to have a rest, but failed to fall asleep. After I emerged, we continued to hang out before deciding to head into town. We drove to a national park where there was a small dam (Gavazang?), then to the top of a hill overlooking the city lights. We also visited a memorial to unknown soldiers. On the way home we picked up sandwiches for dinner. By the time I got to bed it was after midnight.

My new mate Ali

Accommodation Free-camp
Distance ridden today 47.7km
Average cycling speed 13.5kph
Total distance ridden 23,975km
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Day 905 (Iran Day 6)

I slept undisturbed by the old lady who’d hassled me in the evening. Up and away before the surrounding settlement got busy, I hit the road fairly early and enjoyed a cold descent for 17km through beautiful hills down to Chavarzagh. There, I found a shop where I stocked up on food – fruit, baked beans, canned stew and lollies, plus a gift of cold water and chewies – before heading further south. Not far out of town I was waved into a tent by the roadside where tea and lollies were being offered to passersby, as part of some kind of religious thing. A water fountain on a nearby hill gave me a chance to stock up my drinking water. Then I faced an almighty climb, on which I truly reached my limit with physical endurance. At times I walked my bike even though I was on good bitumen, just so that I could spread the pain out across different parts of my body. I pushed on for 30km but with no end in sight I decided to call it quits about 5pm. My body refused to go any further. Being on the side of an incredibly steep mountain meant that options for camping were almost nil. I resorted to sneaking into a culvert that ran under the road. I cleared an area large enough for my tent (sweeping away  broken glass and drug-taking implements in the process) and got on with preparing dinner and crashing into bed.

A home at least

Accommodation Free-camp
Distance ridden today 49.94km
Average cycling speed 9.6kph
Total distance ridden 23,927km
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Day 904 (Iran Day 5)

As mean as it sounds, I couldn’t wait to leave in the morning. Javod was incredibly nice and genuine, but there is only so many times you can hear, ‘I love you’ and ‘I am delig-ted you are here’ without it becoming annoying. In this case, it was at least a hundred times on both accounts. I should have been more prepared with a language app. Javod just had a variety of screenshots of English phrases and he took great pleasure in repeating these over and over. I was treated to a nice breakfast before hitting the road, consisting of bread, cheese, honey and tea. Then, with another round of warnings about how unsafe the road to Masouleh is, I set off on the road towards Masouleh. I had 11km kilometres to prepare myself for disappointment, as it was at this distance that I was hoping to find a way across a river and to a road that will take me in the direction I want to go. Maps.me doesn’t show a way across the river, but with the layout of roads and villages in the surrounding area, it made sense for there to be a way across. I was ecstatic to find the dirt road I wanted to take, and even happier when there was indeed a track leading down to a bridge to take me there. My worrying overnight was for nothing. And so began a hard day on the bike.

The dirt track wound up the valley for a kilometre before I took a right turn and immediately came to head to head with a climb that rivals some of the steep, dirt roads I came across in Nepal. Some of it was impossible to ride as I simply couldn’t turn the pedals fast enough to stay upright. I rode and pushed my way up, stopping every 80m or so for a breather and more often than not take a photo. I continued to climb for much of the day, though with a bit more up and downs, winding through the mountains. The scenery is spectacular out here. Mountain range after mountain range, dry, barren, brown. I came across only a few small villages. At Kahal Darst, I did something I have taken pride in not having needed to do before – ask for water. I was running low and without knowing when I would next find any, I thought it best if I asked. I passed two young guys chatting to an elderly couple on the track running through the village (they, and another old man in his garden, were the only people I saw) and asked them if I could find water in the village. One of the young guys disappeared inside the house we were next to and came out with 1.5L bottle of water, which I poured into my bladder. A few times in the day I came across forks in the road and didn’t know which way to go. Fortunately, even though I was passed by fewer than ten vehicles all day, one always seemed to come by at the right time and I was able to ask for directions. I started the day with little power in my legs and I remained pretty tired throughout.

It was about 5pm at the end of one steep climb that I came across a magical sight. Brand new bitumen. It could have been laid that day it was so fresh. The bitumen led me into a spectacular descent down to a small village. The bitumen didn’t actually last very long, but the rest of the way down had been graded in readiness a new road surface. It was an epic descent. Down in the village I only passed old people. I kept an eye out for a market but I don’t think there is one. When I got to what seemed to be the end of the village I turned around and rode back up to a group of old men. In classic style, they were sitting in a row, walking sticks in hand, chatting the afternoon away. A few ladies were around as well. I asked the men if I could find water around. The ladies then took it upon themselves to help. One opened her gate and came out with a hose. I dug out my other bladder and filled it up. Another lady gave me a frozen bottle of water.

I left the village, hoping to find a place to camp soon. I came across a perfect site where the road hits the water course. It is obviously a well-used area for picnics: perfect green grass and clear running creek. I explored it a little before returning to my bike, almost completely certain I’d move in here. Then, when at my bike, I saw a group of three enter the area, a boy and two young ladies. They saw me and seemed uncertain about showing themselves. I decided to look elsewhere, not wanting to encroach on their picnic and make the girls uncomfortable.

I followed the watercourse downhill, hoping to find a similar spot to camp. I never found anywhere ideal. I have ended up in a lower part of the village, below some really ancient (and derelict) looking homes built into the side of the hill. I came across a bit of a scrappy looking picnic area. A couple of families were just leaving the area, having obviously had a picnic. I scoped out the area and had chosen a spot deep along some small tracks when an old lady called out to me. There is a little home nearby and she obviously lives there. She seemed nice but kept talking and gesturing at me. I had no idea what she was on about. She was really dirty and her hands and forehead were red. A couple of her gestures seemed like she was asking for money. She put me off sleeping there and I instead retreated to a backup option closer to the road. As I was setting up my tent and starting to prepare dinner she appeared again. She stood nearby for a long while chatting every now and then and gesturing. She could have been saying I could have a wash at her house, but then she was also rubbing her fingers together as if she was asking for money. I basically ignored her and she eventually went away. Dinner consisted of rice, with fresh potato and onion, mixed with baked beans and a can of beef stew. It’s now pitch black and really starting to cool down. Time to get snug in my sleeping bag and hopefully regain some body power overnight.

Finding my way

Accommodation Free-camp
Distance ridden today 49.86km
Average cycling speed 10kph
Total distance ridden 23,877km
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Day 903 (Iran Day 4)

After a very peaceful sleep, I enjoyed opening my tent to a magical view over the mountains through which I’ve been riding. The strain I could feel in my legs on waking warned me that I was perhaps pushing my body too hard, but still I looked forward to another day exploring, even if it meant more climbing. My uphill efforts were soon rewarded with a magical downhill towards the main road that runs to the city of Khalkhal. Before I reached this city, however, I turned southwards onto the Khalkhal-Kolor Road, which gave me a thoroughly enjoyable ride through a beautifully picturesque valley. Kolor was eerily quiet when I passed through. I stopped to have tea with a couple of old guys building a shop, but didn’t stick around long. Just outside of town, I stopped for a lunch break, preparing my standard fare: tomato and cucumber sandwiches, with fresh fruit and dried fruit and nuts. A short ride then brought me to Shal, to which I felt an immediate affinity. Nestled among barren hills, the village is a lush oasis and I started thinking it would be a nice place to call home for the night. I let this feeling pass as I started leaving the village, but then fate stepped in and I was called to a stop by a youth on a motorbike. Within 30 seconds I had been invited to stay at his home.

I followed Javod up a steep dirt driveway that led to the told of hill that provides a most amazing view over Shal and the surrounding hills. Perched on this hill are three massive sheds and two small concrete structures. The sheds comprise a chicken farm, whereas the other buildings represented the home of Javod and his family. I was welcomed into one of the two buildings, which forms the home’s living room. Immediately I was treated to ice cream and watermelon. After a bit of a rest I got a tour of the property, during which I learned for the first time how walnuts grow. I instantly thought how peculiar it was that while I have enjoyed eating walnuts through my life, I have never actually wondered how they grow. On the tree, the fruit could be mistaken for a smooth-skinned lime. The fleshy outside is less than 1cm thick and underneath it is the hard shell of the nut. One well-aimed, but not too hard, strike with a rock opens up this shell and reveals the brainy nut kernel. I thought about how nuts are kind of expensive around the world, and it makes sense considering the effort that must be involved to harvest them and package them cleanly.

Around 7pm I was treated to a dinner consisting of plain rice and a bowl of green sauce. I was the only person that ate at this time and I was to learn that this was because the family normally eats dinner around 10pm. It around this time that Javod’s father placed skewers of marinated chicken meat on an open fire in the backyard. Yes, I was being treated to one of the family’s prized chickens, which had been killed earlier in the evening. Of course it was absolutely delicious. We ate it with bread, rice, and a fruit/chilli pickle. By this time Javod’s limited English had been exhausted, but this didn’t stop him from repeating the same phrases over and over, generally telling me how nice it was that I was visiting. I also faced repeated warnings about the road ahead. When I explained to Javod and his father where I intended to ride, I was told that I had to change my route. Apparently there are thieves in the area ahead and I might become the victim of a knife attack. I was shown a route that included roads with a ‘one red security level’, as opposed to ones with a ‘two red security level’. On the surface, I accepted their advice and said I would do as they say, but this was only to appease them and not create a conflict. In reality, I knew I wasn’t going to change my plans. I put down their warnings to an overcautious attitude resulting from a general suspicion that people seem to have about neighbouring ‘clans’ of people, and assumed that there might have been some isolated incidents over the years of locals robbing local tourists (the area attracts local tourists for the beautiful picnic spots it provides in the forest).

While talking about my route, I became alarmed when I saw that my intended path was not continuous on Maps.me. I remembered had noticed this a while ago, but hadn’t looked close enough at it in a while to be reminded of the fact. Now, my closer inspections revealed that there might not be a way across a valley that connects two roads I want to take. If I couldn’t find a way between the roads, I faced a long detour that would take me back out of the mountains I’d worked so hard to enter, and back towards the Caspian Sea. I was completely worn out by the time our night ended, which was after midnight. A bed was laid out for me on the floor and I shared the room with a man who worked on the chicken farm.

Spacious

Accommodation Home of lovely family
Distance ridden today 63.03km
Average cycling speed 14.7kph
Total distance ridden 23,827km
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Day 902 (Iran Day 3)

Hills. Or I should say, one gigantic hill. That was my day. Despite the hardship (my body having not faced proper hills for a while), it was a beautiful ride as I headed inland from Asalem. Dense forest towers over the road, so for most of the day I was riding in the mottled shadow. Being out of direct sun didn’t stop me from sweating though and I felt like I was back in Indonesia, able to wring out a cup-full of sweat from my shirt.

I experienced an incredibly nice start to the day, just a couple of minutes after I’d turned off from the main road out of Asalem. I stopped at a little shop to buy a few supplies (tomatoes, baked beans, apples, fruit bar and coke). The nice lady invited me to sit down on the platform out the front and have some tea. Not only was I brought tea, but the lady’s very beautiful daughter brought me a full breakfast, consisting of fresh bread, cheese, sweet fruit chutney, grapes and tea. What a way to start the day! In return I gave them a bowlful of dried apricots, dates and walnuts from Azerbaijan.

I was treated to more tea and snacks as the day went on. Every flat patch of roadside was occupied by families stopping for a picnic. I accepted invitations a couple of times. The first was with a cute little family of four. We couldn’t really have a conversation, but it was still a comfortable situation nonetheless. I was treated to tea and melon.

All the while I grew increasingly exhausted, despite not making good distance. I have stopped just outside the small town – I am not sure of its name as it is written in Persian on my map. I had stopped to take a photo and when I climbed the embankment to get a better shot, I learned that the top of it consisted of an attractive grassed area that extended away from the road. I went for a quick scout and found a flat spot where I could pitch my tent that would be out of sight of the road, and out of sight of nearly all the settlements in the area. I am surrounded by hills dotted with homes, but feel that I won’t be disturbed. When I rode to the spot I passed a couple of oldish guys out for a walk. They came back past after an hour or so carrying bags of shopping. By this time I had set up my tent. We greeted each other and I think (it was with sign language) one of them asked me why I don’t put my tent on the flat spot right on top of the hill. I have put it off to the side on slightly sloping ground so I could be hidden from people as much as possible. Their query had helped me feel that I’m not doing anything wrong by camping here.

Soon after I stopped riding I started getting cold and it has continued to get colder. I think I am going to have to be in my sleeping bag for the first time in a while. Lately I have been using it like a blanket and even then only in the very early morning when the night is at its coldest. Tonight I’m going to have to get snug inside it from the start.

(Almost) On top of the world

Accommodation Free-camp
Distance ridden today 37.86km
Average cycling speed 7.5kph
Total distance ridden 23,764km
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Day 901 (Iran Day 2)

Iran is going to be a country in which I cannot make any real plans. Well, I could make them, but I can’t expect to be able to stick to them. The reason: I will have too many unexpected interactions with locals. I got away from Mr Hossein’s house mid-morning after a bit of a slow pack up. I did some serious daydreaming as I rode further away from Astara, moving at a good speed. There was lots of traffic but most kept away from me so I didn’t have to worry too much. While stopped for a break on a shaded grassy area I saw two lightly-loaded cycle tourists passing. I shouted out ‘Hey’ and they slowed for a moment before riding on. After about 50m they turned around and rode back. I walked down to the road to meet them. They were Iranian guys on a 10-day from their home in Tabriz to Marshhad on the eastern side of the country. Farzad could speak okay English while David knew less English or was shyer to use it. We chatted for a few minutes before taking a couple of photos. They moved on while I returned to my picnic spot. I caught up to them a couple of hours later. They must have stopped for a meal. From this point on we rode together. It was nice to have company and something to focus on other than the busy road.

I was expecting to farewell them at my turnoff from Asalem. We stopped a few kilometres before the turnoff for a quick break and as we were enjoying a cold drink, they invited me (they had to call a friend who knew even more English to translate their invite for me) to join them for food about 1km past the turnoff where their friend is waiting for them. I got the impression their friend lived there and I was being invited to a house. The 1km turned out to be about 6km and the house turned out to be a picnic spot. As the number of kilometres past the turnoff ticked by I had to work hard to maintain my composure and reassure myself that it’s nice to be sharing this experience with locals even if I don’t want to be riding so far in the wrong direction. It turned out totally worth it in the end. The picnic spot was a place called Gisoum Beach. The road to the beach ran through forest and the trees alongside the road bend towards each other to create a natural tunnel letting filtered light through. The entrance entry was lined with stalls selling towels and hats and shawls and all the way along were families picnicking among the trees. I followed my new friends until we found the place where their friend had set up a picnic. There I met a lovely family of five (one guy together with a lady in her forties, two in their thirties and a 12-year old girl).

Soon after we settled down a pot of food came out. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting to come out the pot, but it sure wasn’t spaghetti bolognese. We all ate together and I enjoyed listening to the chatter. Often it would turn towards me with a variety of questions. They all worked as a team to come up with the English needed to ask me what they wanted and pass on my answer among the group. We chilled out until around 5pm. I knew I was risking a difficult night by not being prepared with somewhere to stay, but at the same time I happy to be sharing my time with such lovely people. As the picnic came to an end I was given the leftover spaghetti for dinner as well as a packet of biscuits. As the family drove out in their car, the three of us rode out together. I asked Farzad if it was possible to camp in the forest here but he said no. It looked absolutely perfect, but I knew it would be a hassle as there was too many people around to enter the forest unseen. Back at the main road we farewelled each other. I turned back northwards and soon began fretting about what I was going to do. I had a couple of hours of sunlight left to find a place to sleep.

I left the main road on a small road that appeared to lead into a densely forested area. Unfortunately, the area was heavily populated with fenced in properties so offered no suitable place in which I could hide my camp. I then explored in the other direction past the main road. This area had larger properties lining a clear-running creek and I instantly felt like I could find a place here. I followed the road as it turned into a dirt track and started assessing potential locations. I have found a flat patch of grass next to the creek, almost hidden from the track by a row of trees. As I set up my tent and got settled, some locals walking along the track noticed me but none ventured to see who I was or what I was doing. At first I was trying my best to hide completely, but I soon decided not to act so shady. Sometimes it’s more appropriate to be open about your presence in someone else’s land and this felt like one of those times. I still feel slightly bad that I no one around knows what I’m doing here, meaning they are probably slightly anxious about having a stranger camped in the area.

I didn’t bother cooking dinner. Instead, I just added a can of corn/peas/capsicum to half of the spaghetti and ate it cold. I collected water from the creek to have a wash with, then washed my riding clothes in the creek itself.

Family picnic

Accommodation Free-camp
Distance ridden today 94.35km
Average cycling speed 18.9kph
Total distance ridden 23,726km
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