Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Axis of Evil

Soon after I'd stepped off the ferry from the UAE and first put my foot onto Persian soil I realised how badly I'd planned this trip. Lying in my unusually expensive hotel room after an evening of testing ATMs for compatibility with my bank card I at last got to the page in Lonely Planet that told me that, owing to a recent tightening of economic sanctions against Iran, I could only use cash.

Bad news. Bad, bad news. My forehead immediately heating up from the whirring gears of comprehension, I furiously emptied out my pack onto my bed in an Easter-egg hunt for forgotten US dollars. Okay, I thought, if I can survive for the next month on a budget of seven dollars a day, I might just be able to afford a visa into the next country. What a shame that night's accommodation cost four days of my budget. Well, I'd heard that Iranians are incredibly hospitable - it was time to put that to the test.

The next morning I got a look at what I'd got myself into. I felt like I'd been transported back to the land of my childhood: the streets were quiet, people smiled a lot and most of the cars were made in the late seventies. Iran is like Cuba plus twenty years. Taking my eyes off the quaint retro-town of Bandeh-e-Lenghe I pumped up my tyres (I've had a very slow leak for the past two months) and headed away from the coast and into the desert. Soon, I was greeted by an army of giant concrete tepees receding off over the plains that I initially regarded as a potential source of cheap housing but was later disappointed to discover actually sheltered awkwardly deep wells. They seemed to be straight out of Frank Herbert's Dune series.

Towards the end of my first day's ride through the immediately arid Iranian desert I felt a low rumble like a poorly tuned truck. The previously blue skies now flickered with distant lightning over the parched landscape and I knew time was running out to seek shelter. Thankfully, while stocking up in a small desert village on a can of pineapple slices costing a third of my day's budget, a bunch of guys jumped out to invite me into their home. I made an almost audible sigh of relief that the hospitality rumours were true.

However, this was one of the most normal night's stays I experienced in Iran. Over the next month I found myself crashing in three mosques (the secret of Islam's success - fully heated mosques in winter, I nearly converted right then and there), a school, a crowded student flat and even, almost, a military base. This latter source of emergency accommodation involved ingratiating myself with the base's commander and boisterously entertaining the recruit dormitory before eventually heading to bed. Sadly, this all ended in tears when, in the middle of the night, the base got a call from high command demanding to know why they were harbouring an enemy of the Islamic Republic. They kicked me out in my pajamas. To be fair though, the military did ensure I didn't have to pay for the hotel they dumped me in - I should have thought of getting the Iranian military to pay for my holiday earlier.

Apart from all the weird places at which I stayed I was mostly invited into family homes. The patriarch of one of these took me to his weekly game of lame volleyball - a sport invented for the large number of men in the city of Lar who'd been shot in the leg by Iraqis during their war with that country. Shuffling around on the dusty indoor sports hall floor using only my hands for locomotion I impressed the town's limping veterans with my spectacular serving aim.

Annoyingly though, success was never guaranteed in finding a bed (or actually a floor - which is what everyone sleeps on in this country). On two occasions I was forced to sleep outside - once in a burnt-out housing estate out of town, kept awake by a nearby group of local bogans and, later, distant wolf cries; and on another occasion, taking the opposite extreme, on a park bench in a large town's main roundabout - enlivened by an overlooking resident coming out to give me a box of Ferrero Rochers in the middle of the night. Other than the chocolate I have rued my lack of tent and the crappiness of my US army sleeping bag (and unrolling this in mosques is always an awkward experience - it's covered in cheerful American flags).

Another awkwardness occurs when my host, an imam or revered father, inevitably asks whether I'm a Shiite Muslim or Sunni Muslim. At this point his educated and worldly son will lean in and quietly inform him that I am a Westerner and therefore a Christian.

"Actually," I helpfully clarify, "I'm an atheist. It's my opinion that the god you worship every day doesn't even exist." I'm not sure how much they appreciate this insight into my metaphysical philosophy. Thankfully my Farsi isn't quite good enough to communicate the full extent of this heresy.

The ride leading up to the fairly banal city of Shiraz (maybe its banality was related to its absence of wine) was, as always, mindblowingly spectacular. Vast flat plains punctuated by striated mountain ranges, the road zigzagging around them to avoid expensive tunneling. Some rolling green hills made me feel like I was on the Tour de France, a comparison enhanced by motorists offering me food and clothing through their windows as they passed. Of course, some people can be annoying - I do still get the sneered 'Why?' gesture. How do they expect me to answer? "Yes, cycling through Iran is all part of my evil plan to destroy the world."

It was in the learned city of Shiraz that I heard of a method of acquiring some cash - through a hotel in the desert city of Yazd, a 400 kilometre detour. On the way I checked out the ruins of Persepolis, still smarting from the ravages of Alexander the Great's drunken party and subsequent house fire (what a night that must have been!). Knowledge of that conflagration kept my spirit warm as I ascended into three kilometre elevation mountains and was instantly struck by a massive snowstorm.

If there's anyone out there who's tried to ride through a snowstorm they'll know how much worse it is than rain. Not only is visibility reduced to about the distance of your handlebars, but even squinting, your eyes sting with the impact of each snowflake. Abandoning my day's ride half-way through I was forced to return to a town I'd past about ten kilometres back, a friendly truck driver giving me a lift for the last small stretch. Annoyingly I left my helmet in the truck's cabin but I think the extreme paranoia of hitting something for the rest of my ride adequately compensated for my reduced impact safety. As an added bonus, losing the false security of my head-protection launched me into a state of hyper-reality that really enhanced my cycling experience.

I spent the next two nights stranded in the small town of Safa Shar waiting for it to stop snowing while staying at the expansive house of a Zoroastrian engraver/cargo ship captain. On the second evening the local 'sportsmen' took me 'duck hunting'. This involved driving dangerously through deep snow in a 1970s sedan for an hour, stopping frequently when bogged, quickly disembarking to confirm the dearth of ducks, then taking pot shots at stray dogs on the way home. These guys out-boganed the Omanis.

But at last, digging my bike out of the snow, I was on my way. The next three days saw me dropping off the huge snowy plateau upon which I'd been stranded, crossing the vast and genuinely empty Abarqu desert, and finally climbing over another bitterly cold mountain range to Yazd.

Yazd offered my first encounter with foreigners in Iran - the backpackers' hostel there was swarming with them. My main contact here was Jemima, a slow-traveling Sydney girl and friend of my old Uni buddy Adrian, who introduced me and a bunch of backpacking characters to various local digs, bachelor pads and even an impromptu santur concert (a traditional Persian instrument) over dinner one night. During the daylight hours we all explored the Zoroastrian sky burial sites, went on a desert village tour and clambered over the interlocking roofs of Yazd's burnt-sand coloured skyline as the sun set over the mountains.

My companions seemed to involve a fair few cycle tourists, but none riding at the time - all had left their bikes in Tehran on their way across the popular Central Asian route so they could tour the south. One of these, James, even had to resort to eating canine roadkill to survive a deserted stretch in Turkey - I was glad I'd be taking the train.

During all this I was trying to set up a bank transfer with the manager's brother-in-law in India so I could finally get some cash. Here's a tip for doing this yourself: you know the description 'to appear on your statement' your bank lets you write when setting up an online transfer? The bank reads that. Don't describe your transfer as "Iran Cash" - you get a load of anxious emails demanding you call the bank immediately to tell them why your trying to violate international sanctions against the country. After carefully explaining the situation for five days I gave up and left the city, borrowing heavily from Jemima to get me to Tehran. Having left, the bank, Westpac, later spontaneously let the money through... but it took two entire months for it to arrive in India. In the end it was returned to my account because I wasn't related to the recipient - minus two large $20 transfer fees for their trouble which they still refuse to reimburse.

The final thousand kilometres riding to Tehran went by in one long deserty blur. Here I frequently found myself clocking up 150 kilometre days, barely stopping or even changing gears. I interrupted this journey with a few days in Esfahan so I could apply for a visa extension, which I got in twenty minutes rather than purported three days probably because of how awesome the visa official thought my trip was. Esfahan also produced my ebook reader, sent to my hotel there from Mumbai after I had to leave that city too early for its reception. At last I could finally dispense with the grotesquely heavy paper version of James Joyce's Ulysses!

While in Esfahan I hostelled with a Japanese backpacker who spent three days hanging around the headquarters of the Islamic militia, the dreaded Basij, trying to get his passport and camera deconfiscated. He'd been caught taking photos of one of Esfahan's historic bridges... while a demonstration connected with the recent Arab uprisings marched over it. He eventually had them returned within hours of his departure for home.

It was with great sadness that I rode the final 500 kilometres to Tehran for the conclusion of my cycle tour, precariously navigating between the twin nasty countries of Iraq and Afghanistan. The scenery was still spectacular - brain-numbingly vast stretches of desert, isolated villages perched on hillsides, and, at one point, a view of the gibbous moon bulging out from behind a sky-piercing icy mountain elevating a good mood fueled by both endorphins and adrenaline (produced during ascents and descents respectively). This later scene was just before cycling over Iran's underground uranium enrichment plant where I was briefly stopped by the army employing their Farsical language at minimum comprehension levels. It was unfortunate that it was at this exact point that I met the only other cycling tourists in Iran (a Swiss couple) - the army forced us to go our separate ways before we'd got a proper chance to exchange touring stories.

But at last, fifteen kilometres below the massive round cycling total of 10,000, I had reached the capital, Tehran. The next day, after three hours of waiting in queues at the main post office, I'd sent my panniers back to Australia. Annoyingly, my overlong bike was to remain with me for the train ride to Istanbul.

That afternoon, my stuff strewn haphazardly throughout my windowless hotel room like the contents of an inefficient garbage compacter, I went online in the lobby to check my emails. Chatting for a few minutes with Jemima who happened also to be online, we suddenly discovered that we were both in Tehran and, in fact, only about 50 metres away from each other. This called for immediate tea-ing it up (alcohol being illegal in this country) and I jumped across the street to join her for a brew.

Night having fallen, we took the metro across town to what Jemima described as the 'best soup in Tehran'. Well, this was certainly an offer I couldn't refuse and I of course joined her metro-hopping with alacrity - a decision that was to result in one of the creepiest experiences I'd ever had. During our long and eventually soupless search for this establishment, settling instead on kebabs, Jemima told me how she'd been followed around everywhere she went by the secretive Basij, presumably due to a weird case of mistaken identity. She reckoned they thought she was some kind of foreign activist for the opposition movement (they're obsessed with that idea here). She even pointed out neatly-shaven men standing around watching us as potential militiamen. I put this down to paranoia until, just about to take the escalator back into the metro system for our return home, one of these neatly shaven men turned to us and told us to sit down.

We sit. More men emerge from the crowd to make sure we don't go anywhere. They ask for our passports (they're at our respective hotels) and cameras (I keep quiet - mine's in my pocket). After waiting a few minutes we're suddenly grabbed from the side and pushed into the open door of an already crowded car that's just pulled up on the kerb. The driver goes crazy navigating the clogged city streets of central Tehran, pulling into cordoned-off bus lanes, overtaking trucks and speeding around corners. None of the men in the car speak English so a phone is handed to Jemima through which she's asked who I am and what we're doing in the city. It worries me that our story, that we were searching for the best soup in town, seems so implausible they can't possibly believe her.

Soon we're driven into the underground car-park of a suspiciously Soviet-looking concrete building. I check the time in the car: eight thirty p.m. After about 15 minutes sitting on the back seat a group of burka-clad women grab Jemima, blindfold her and take her away. A group of men then come and blindfold me, leading me into an elevator and then the Orwellian 'Room 101' of the institution. They make me put out my hand to stabilise myself against a wall while an English-speaker interrogates me through my left ear.

Up to this point I'm mainly feeling confused and unnerved, assuming it's all just some massive error that will soon be resolved. Standing facing the wall, blindfolded and questioned, I begin to worry about how long we'll be detained and what these guys might do to us. I constantly brace myself for a blow to the head (which never comes) and assume that at any minute I'll find myself waking up in some forgotten cell block. They ask me questions the whole time - who I am, what I'm doing, who I know in Iran, what Jemima's up to. Once I've been mugshotted with my ID they then lead me to believe they're ransacking my hotel room. They seem particularly confused by my assertion that I'm in Iran to pedal my bicycle around their nice country and that I'm completely free of any secret ambitions to overthrow their unpleasant government.

At last, after what seems like many more hours than the two and a half they have me standing there, they make me sit down and hold out my hand. "This is it," I think, "This is where they break my fingers." Instead I'm handed a banana and a bottle of water. I'm led back into the elevator and then, rather than the dank holding cell I assume I've just been rationed for, out onto the street. The car pulls up again and I realise I'm being released.

"Jemima! Where's Jemima!?" I demand.

"I'm here, Felix," a voice near me explains. "I'm standing right next to you." We're both still blindfolded.

After another wild drive through the now dormant streets we're dumped from the car with our bananas and bottles of water to find our own ways home before the metro closes down. As we part I want to give Jemima a hug for support, but these things are inappropriate in this country. I get back to my hotel room towards midnight - it hadn't been ransacked by the Basij, but my pannier-less bike gear is strewn all over it so it's hard to tell.

What an ordeal! I woke up the next day and basically holed myself up in the room not daring to leave until my train for Istanbul departed that evening. Despite the friendly Iranians in my luxurious four-berth cabin I was pretty uncommunicative until I'd had my passport stamped with a Turkish visa. At that point I burst out with, "What the hell is wrong with your country!?".

The story passed up and down the train to Istanbul. Most were embarrassed about what terrible hosts their country had been to me, but many were impressed I was let out without being tortured or indefinitely imprisoned. It was with great relief that I crossed the Bosporus with my bike three days later at the conclusion of my continuous overlanding adventure - I was at last safely in Europe.

Little did I realise what else I was in for once I'd flown into the vast African continent six days later...


  1. I was thinking this was a bit 'Felix in Mordor'...

  2. This is the stuff of awesome novels Felix! Can't wait to hear about your adventures in Africa, my favourite place!!

  3. Great story Felix. I always thought my drive from Esphahan to Baghdad was impressive, but now I see that it hardly rates. Will try to get to your birthday to compare notes on wandering up Kilimanjaro - one of the four highest mountains in the world, did you know.

  4. Hmm, why is [] anonymous??? Another cracker Felix. Do you realise your mother is also reading this though?

  5. Thanks guys. It turned out that Jemima was still in Iran and was worried about her name being on the internet with that story, but she's out now so I've put her name back.

    I'd actually decided on the title 'Axis of Evil' ironically before I got to Tehran - now I'm not so sure...

  6. WOW!!! That was one helluva story and amazing story telling....kicks the pants off my 2 months in Iran last year hahaha....Jem was shit scared a week ago that she'd be arrested before she left because of your blog hahaha....good to see she's made it to Kuwait now. Looking forward to seeing u back in melb in a few weeks! shame jem won't be here yet for the reunion :(