Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Welcome to Iran!

Imagine a country where as a visitor, you get invited into the homes of friendly local folk at the drop of a hat. Hard to imagine? Iran is that country, in case you were still wondering. I had heard from other travellers about how hospitable the people in Iran are, but nothing I had read in travel guides or heard from others could prepare me for the real thing. 

Mountains and steep climbs upon arriving in Iran.

I had just started the first steep uphill after crossing the border from Armenia at Nordooz, when a motorcyclist pulled up next to me and offered to pull me up the steep incline with his bike. I had to decline his offer because I knew it would be risky to hang on to a motorcycle with one hand while trying to steer my bicycle at the same time! After asking for the third time whether I was ok on my own, he bid me farewell and disappeared over the rise that still awaited me. That was just the first of countless offers of assistance and invitations in Iran.

Too lazy to pitch my tent, I slept in this concrete pipe.

The mountainous landscape rolled on for the first three days as I headed for the city of Tabriz. The highlands held Chukar, Finsch’s Wheatear, Rock Sparrow, Water Pipit, and Red-billed Cough. A Red-breasted Flycatcher perched on a fence beside the road was an unexpected gem and possibly a rare one too. I arrived in Tabriz in the late afternoon, and was soon spotted by a motorcyclist who invited me to his home, but not before sharing his bottle of warm cow’s milk with me. Delicious! And so it was that I would spend my first night in an Iranian’s home in Tabriz. From the moment I walked in I loved the Persian carpets spread out on the floor; I counted five or six. Iranian culture was already beginning to get under my skin.

Melons on sale by the roadside; I was given a couple along the way.

I decided that I was going to meet up with Amir, whom I had meet weeks earlier in Georgia. He had given me an open invitation to visit him if I found myself in Tehran, his home city. So I headed out of Tabriz on the long road to Tehran. Not far out of Tabriz I was delighted to see a wetland, my first in Iran. It turned out that the Ghoorigul Wetland is listed as a Ramsar site, which means it’s a wetland of international importance for the conservation of waterbirds, mainly waterfowl (the Ramsar Convention was developed and adopted by participating nations at a meeting in 1971, in, guess where, the city of Ramsar in Iran!). Ghoorigul supports the much sought-after White-headed Duck, but only in summer. I missed this species in Turkey and would miss it here too. But the wetland held a large number of other waterfowl species including Northern Shoveler, Common Teal, Mallard, Common Pochard, and Eurasian Coot.

Ghoorigul Wetland south east of Tabriz, northern Iran.

Camping amongst the hills in northern Iran.

South of Miyaneh I found a great campsite in a scenic river valley. That evening I heard the calls of Eurasian Eagle-owl echoing from the steep slopes opposite the river. I heard the calls again the next morning but could not locate the birds.  Consolation came in the form of my first pair of Scrub Warblers, working their way up the near vertical road cutting. Not much later, I was particularly pleased to find another first, namely Persian Wheatear. Other nice species seen included Little Owl, Eurasian Penduline Tit in a patch of reeds, and a male Pallid Harrier gliding by before sunset. 

Taxi drivers in Miyaneh, posing for a photo.
Persian Wheatear, a splendid bird to see.

Scenic river valley south of Miyaneh; perfect camp site.

The road to Tehran was long and straight, but I never experienced any real dull moments; it was great to be cruising at a good speed on a flat road! Often, while passing through a town, motorcyclists would side up to me, and in their best English call out 'Welcome to Iran!'. I appreciated these moments. In Sain-Qaleh I was again invited to spend the night over, this time at a shop owner’s home. Mohamad served me copious amounts of tea while introducing me to his friends visiting his shop; he was exceedingly sincere, like many other Iranians I would meet during my two-month stay in the country. I had cycled only a few kilometres down the road the next morning when I was invited by another shop owner for a stay-over, but I had to decline as it was too early in the day to retire from cycling; this would not be the last time this would happen! Common road side birds included the usual assemblage: Crested Lark, Magpie, White Wagtail, Rook, and Long-legged Buzzard.

Rivers, good habitat for Common Greenshank and Green Sandpiper.

With Mohamad (right) and a close friend, in Sain-Qaleh.

As I was negotiating the afternoon traffic in Karaj before Tehran, I was brought to a halt by Naeem. He called a friend, Afshin, to let him know I was in town. One to never miss an opportunity to host a foreign cyclist, Afshin kindly invited me to spend the night at his family’s home. That evening I joined him at his mountain biking club’s weekly meeting, where I had the opportunity to meet more enthusiastic cyclists. As a club they regularly undertake group rides, and especially cross-country cycles, which I can only imagine must be awesome across Iran’s fantastic country side. The next day, together with Afshin’s friend, we took a drive north of Karaj through a spectacular mountain range and returned along a portion of the famous Chalus road, rated as one of Iran’s most beautiful roads. The autumn leaves were in full colour, making the views across the wooded mountain valleys even more spectacular.
Together with Afshin in the mountains near Karaj, northern Iran.

Autumn colours along the Chalus Road, northern Iran.

Meeting a cycling and mountain climbing legend like Afshin was an unexpected privilege, and another warm welcome to Iran. After farewells, I was heading along the last stretch to Tehran to meet up with Amir. Amir, his wife Leila and son Parsa hosted me for my four days in the city, which turned out to be a most memorable one. My stay in Tehran coincided with ceremonies and mourning rituals to mark the martyrdom of Emam Hussein, grandson of Islamic Prophet Mohammad, and his quest for justice some 14 centuries ago. The main streets and mosques were filled with mourners commemorating the event, giving me a glimpse of the passion that Iranians have for truth and selflessness. Watching a performance encapsulating the final days of Emam Hussein and his loyal followers preceding his martyrdom was a stirring experience; I was struck by the raw emotion pouring from the men surrounding me in the mosque.

Streets in the southern suburbs of Tehran.

An old Cadillac in Tehran.

Mourners taking to the streets in Tehran.
Part of a shrine dedicated to Emam Hussein.
I discovered that paradise is not very far from Tehran. Amir took me hiking in the nearby mountains to the famous Oson Hotel, perched above a wooded valley covered in shades of orange and red. This secluded valley is a popular weekend destination for locals wanting to escape the city, and to relax at the numerous open-air restaurants which are only accessible by foot. Even the Oson Hotel can only be reached on foot, and mules are required to transport supplies to the hotel via the valley. While ascending the valley, one clears the smog line of Tehran, where you literally get a breath of fresh air! I saw my first White-eared Bulbuls here, a striking species and perhaps the most beautiful of the bulbuls I had seen yet. Amir and I hiked as far as the hotel and enjoyed an omelette lunch, oblivious to the snow and ice that was falling on the peaks surrounding the hotel. When we emerged, we were in for a cool descend as we were pelted by falling ice and some rain – a great way to end the day’s excursion!

On the way up to Oson Hotel.

Amir, on the way up to Oson Hotel.

A plastic bowl spinning on a stream of water.

A mule used for transporting supplies to the hotel.

The Oson Hotel, a modest but heavenly get-away location.

Lunch at the Oson hotel.

Looking south down the valley towards Tehran.

Back in the city, we visited a good friend of Amir’s. Mori was an entertaining host, and I thoroughly enjoyed his enthusiasm as we took to the streets at night for sight-seeing. Although he had never spoken an English word in his adult life, he did use the words ‘come on’ when we lagged behind. He is now known to his friends as ‘Come on Mori’! Mori’s mother made the most delicious rice dish I have ever tasted, while I also got to try my luck at playing the popular backgammon board game, a favourite amongst Iranians. The atmosphere of family and friends united was infectious; a marvellous evening of oneness and togetherness, if I can put it that way.  

A game of backgammon between two generations.

While vising Amir’s family in the southern suburbs of the city, we strolled through the lengthy traditional bazaars and visited Amir’s childhood neighbourhood. I also had my first taste of Nazri, traditionally cooked food for charity and distributed amongst neighbours, family and pass-byers. Nazri was just about everywhere across the city, as well as bounteous amounts of tea and hot chocolate, served for free on sidewalks and in suburban parks.

Amir and Leila at a tea stall during one of our evening walks, Tehran.

Amir and Parsa; southern suburbs of Tehran.

Door knockers in Tehran; for ladies (L) and gents (R).

With Amir in the southern suburbs of Tehran.

On my departure, Amir and Leila kindly dropped me off on the south side of Tehran to save on cycling through the dense city traffic. I had been spoilt rotten during my stay by my new friends, and I knew it would only be a question of time before I would return.   

My next destination was the city of Esfahan in central Iran; a 400 km cycle from Tehran. I was hoping to make a visit to the Kavir National Park southeast of Tehran to see bustards, but I had been informed that the park was not accessible by bicycle. It would have to wait until the next visit, and so I pushed on to Kashan. To escape the traffic on the main road for a while, I took a secondary road over the mountains to Meymeh. On the gentle ascend I saw the usual birds such as Red-billed Chough and Magpie. Syrian Woodpecker was an expected find at an orchard beside the road, but what was really unexpected was an Eversmann’s Redstart. The views were brief but the white wing bar and rufous rump were unmistakable characteristics. The steady climb continued for a further 30 km through the sparsely vegetated hills and scenic gorges. See-see Partridges regularly flushed when I rounded gorge corners, but never gave good views as they whizzed off with stiff wing-beats. A small flock of Woodlark was another surprise; thought I had seen them before in Armenia, I was still not accustomed to seeing this species in such arid environments.

Looking back on the road between Kashan and Meymeh.

I reached the village of Jevinan just before sunset; it was cooling down fast and even a weather novice like me could tell that the next day would be even less pleasant. Fortunately I met Meysam, a local from the village who kindly organised me a free room at the motel near the village mosque. Not your average motel, this was a simple double-storey building with unfurnished rooms. Unfurnished except for the glorious gas heater in the corner and the beautifully decorated Persian carpets. This was going to be a comfortable night I thought! After Meysam bid me farewell, I was surprise when he returned with his father. They had just returned to bring me some apples and pomegranates; again, I was blown away by the thoughtfulness of Iranian people.   

Meysam and his father, who brought me fruit as a welcoming gift.

As predicted by a simple process of deduction, the temperature had dropped considerably by the next morning. I climbed the final few kilometres through dense fog before reaching the first sprinkling of snow near the top of the pass. The descent was even colder thanks to the wind chill and lack of pedal-power required. Flocks of Skylarks, Linnets and Red-billed Choughs provided some distractions from the cold until I reached the city of Meymeh. The next day brought soaking rain for the entire 100 km cycle to Esfahan, but an unexpected warm welcome awaited me…    

Snow sprinkled on the top of the pass; a bitterly cold day!