"Here is better" he said, and instead placed it on top of his huge, much cleaner, fully automatic assault rifle that was laid alongside me. Much better.
It was our last night in Turkey, only 30km from the Iranian border, and we were staying at a petrol garage. It was next to a large construction company, which was guarded by two armed guards. After having a few cups of tea with the guards in the petrol station office, we retreated to our tent in the car park. A pack of wild dogs had found my food pannier that I'd stupidly left outside in the carpark. I chased them off but the damage was done.
We were ready to leave Turkey by now. Turkey itself is immense, however the east of the country's population is proudly Kurdish and nothing like the Turks. I'm not the best with politics or history, but clearly somewhere along the way the Kurds were dealt a rough hand - they have a population of around 60 million yet don't have a country of their own, and are just spread out around Eastern Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. They are constantly trying to get a piece of land from Turkey for themselves. Either way that didn't stop us from hating the majority of the kids and teenagers there.
We'd read that foreign cyclists weren't so popular in this part of Turkey, and we were no exception. We had stones chucked at us a few times, and kids and teenagers swearing at us many times. The problem was that they'd wave and smile first and then just as you went past, change the wave into a middle finger. Which then meant every nice kid that gave us a wave or a smile got a very limited response from us. The adults were generally friendly though, but after a week of it, we were ready to leave.
"Hmmm, TR? Where's that from?" Dan asked me curiously.
We'd cycled about 2000km through Turkey, and he chose the very last kilometer to ask me that.
It was a bit crazy coming from Turkey's quiet roads with cycle-friendly drivers, to Iran's super-busy roads with very un-cycle-friendly drivers. Which is why after only an hour of being in the country one poor guy saw the wrath of Daniel Marshall - Daniel's right fist came smashing down on the back of one car as they slowly cut in front of him. And a barrage of swear words that neither one understood, from the both of them. I loved it and could barely control the laughter.
The first night in Iran was back in the tunnels again. Not quite as good as Turkey's, and not big enough for a tent. As we were cooking dinner in it, we then realised it was big enough for something else - a herd of sheep. The shepherd didn't seem at all surprised to see a couple of foreign guys there, and immediately gave us a wave and a "hello", steered his sheep away and headed for another tunnel so they could safely cross the road...
After setting all our gear down, we headed out with him to get food. He ordered two huge Kebabs and a coke each and wouldn't accept a penny. Then he showed us his little photo book of all the cycle tourists he's met over the years. It seemed his hobby was to hunt out foreign cyclists and help them in any way he could, that was just his 'thing'.
The next morning he cycled with us through the town in the snow, and took us to a shop to buy an Iranian sim card that we wanted, and then we were on our way.
"Well done Dan. So what do we do Hammed? How do we get it back?"
"It's in a Taxi on it's way here now, will be with us in an hour"
Well that was easy.
So the following day, after a tour of the city and a nice lunch bought for us, it was time for football. We may be cycling every day but all that does is get you good at cycling. Any time I walk up steps or run somewhere for 2 minutes I can hardly breathe, so playing football was going to be interesting. We were put at ease though as Hammed kept telling us how sure he was that we would be better than all of them.
It started well for me, as I got the scoring under way, but then I gradually got worse and worse. Hammed had lied too, they were all awesome. 30 minutes later I twisted my foot and fell over, the ball nor anyone were nowhere near me. It was pretty painful and I couldn't walk on it, so had to come off. Then it was Dan's turn - he chose to block a very powerful shot with the one thing you don't want to block a very powerful shot. He was down on the ground with everyone around him, and I was very happy with the situation. After a trip to the bathroom to "check that it was still there" he was back on. In the remaining 20 minutes Dan supposedly scored 6 goals and was awesome, I didn't see him score one.
Hammed later admitted that he was actually professional at a younger age.
It was just one room, a very small one, and one guy. I took my shoe and sock off, which now was very painful to do, and lay down on his table. He picked up my foot in his hands, and immediately pressed his thumb on it as hard as he could. It was agony, I nearly punched him, but instead just grabbed on to the sink that was next to me. He continued to do this for about 3 minutes - I hadn't felt pain like it in years or maybe ever. I was sweating and clutching the sink the whole time, reminding myself that he's trying to help. Hammed told me I could scream if I needed to. Then he stopped, just as I was starting to feel faint. I was ready to tell him "no more", and that I didn't think it was helping, but then he changed his tactics - which naturally was to pull out a chicken's egg from nowhere, take the top off and pour the yolk over the swelling. Then he bandaged it up so tight I couldn't feel my foot at all. I left there sweating, drained, confused and in more pain than when I'd arrived. Did only cost me £1.60 though.
"I may have done something a bit silly" he said.
Finding proper bread in Iran was proving difficult in that first week, so when a bread delivery man walked past Dan that morning carrying a bag of 30 baguettes, he panicked and asked how much the whole bag was. At £1.60 it was a bargain, So he went for it. At least we weren't going to run out any time soon...
That day we had the strongest wind I've ever cycled in. It started off as a tailwind, and was literally pushing us up hills. We didn't even need to pedal up some of them, but then we turned a corner and everything changed. It became the most horrid side-wind I've experienced. We had to massively lean into the wind just to stay upright, and then the balaclavas and sunglasses came on after huge clumps of sand and grit started smacking us in the side of the face. We battled against it for about 2 hours, occasionally been blown out of the hard shoulder and into the road, until we decided it was too dangerous to carry on.
We found a tunnel under the road to stop and camp, which gave us no shelter from the wind, if anything it felt stronger in there. I had to get in the tent while Dan pegged it down, as it blew away on the first attempt. That evening while in the tent, shouting to each other over the noise of the wind, we realised Dan had again left something behind - this time his camera. We phoned Hammed no. 1, who then phoned the hotel, who confirmed the camera had been left in the room. Hammed was out of town, so the only thing for Dan to do was to hitch a lift back to Tabriz 70km away. He didn't waste anytime, and it took him all of 30 seconds for a car to stop. The three old Iranian guys inside were only going 5km in the right direction, so Dan had to get out and hitch another lift, this time he got a bus, and didn't have to pay. Five hours later Dan was back with his camera, after saying goodbye to four baffled Iranians who couldn't understand why he wanted dropping off in the middle of nowhere at 10pm.
The next morning the wind was just as strong and so I finally got my way...Every morning Dan has to wake me up, then he has to make me eat breakfast, and then he has the hardest task of the lot which is getting me out of the tent. Mornings have never been my strong point, and i'm always looking for an excuse to stay in the tent for as long as possible. So I was very happy when it was decided the wind was just too strong again, and that we would stay in the tent the whole day watching movies. Perfect. After watching the new war movie 'Sole Survivor', Dan commented that he was surprised that we hadn't guessed only one person would survive?!
Suddenly my bike skidded to a halt as if I'd slammed on the brakes. In fact, the 'dropout' (had to google what that was) - the thing that holds the 'rear derailleur' on (had to google that too) had snapped in half and the derailleur was wedged in my spokes. It had gotten completely bent in the spokes and was useless. The only thing to do was to make the 'chain' (didn't need to google that) smaller, and turn the bike into a single speed. Neither of us have ever done any bike maintenance before so we had to work it out for ourselves. After lots of confusion and an hour later, we'd sort of done it.
Just as we were putting everything back on the bike and getting ready to go, another cycle tourer came along - only the second one of the whole trip, and the first going in the same direction. His name was Zenda, from Hong Kong, and he'd set off from Cardiff where he'd been studying, 9 months ago, and was cycling back to Hong Kong. We chatted on the side of the road for nearly 2 hours, before we all needed to get going again - it was getting late and we were still 25km outside the city. Zenda was going a different way into the city, so Dan and I very slowly set off together again. Our bodge-job on my bike half worked, but if I got up any slight speed, like to jogging speed, then the chain would fall off.
We were heading to a particular place in Tehran, where we knew of a cheap hostel. Upon arriving at the address it was soon apparent we'd made a mistake. There were two streets with almost the same name and of course we'd gone to the wrong one. The correct one was on the other side of the city, another 30km away. By this time it was dark, and we were fed up. We headed for the nearest bit of grass out of sight of the road, put the ground-sheet down, got in our sleeping bags and hoped it didn't rain.
We knew we might be in Tehran a while as this was where we had to do all our visas for the next few countries. Our planned route after Iran was - Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan (no visa required) and then into China. We had arrived in Tehran at a very bad time, it was Norooz - Iran's New Year. Which signaled the start of many different national holidays spread over two weeks. Most things were closed, most days, including Embassies.
After shaving my beard off(warm weather now for the next few months and eating was getting messy), we got started on the visas. The first one we had to get was the Uzbek visa, because to get the Turkmenistan one you need the visa of the next country in your passport - to prove that you will leave. We set off in search of an internet cafe to get our application forms printed off, as well as some photocopies of our passports. Also, I needed to find somewhere that did passport photos. An hour later we still hadn't found an internet cafe - the government shut down 67 in the city in 2013, so there aren't many, and everyone we asked seemed to point us in a different direction, none of which led us to one.
We asked the owner of an electrical store. He didn't speak a word of English but knew where one was. He phoned his friend who spoke a little English and put him on the phone to us. We explained everything that we needed, just hoping to get some good directions, but then he asked to be passed back to his friend. The shop owner then knew exactly what we needed, and used his friend as translator again to explain that Dan had to sit behind his desk and watch his shop for a short time while he took me on the back of his motorbike to get passport photos done.
So he took me there, asked how many I needed, had my photo taken, and then he paid for it and refused to accept my money. Back on the motorbike to his shop, where he brought everything inside and shut up shop, so he could then take both of us to an internet cafe, We got there just before it closed, quickly filled in the form online and printed it off, then printed off copies of our passports...and then the guy paid for all of that too. He then drove us back to his shop, we shook his hand and said lots of thankyous and then said goodbye. It took him an hour chauferring us around, cost him about $10 for all the stuff he paid for us, and lost out on a load of customers no doubt...for absolutely no reason other than we were foreigners needing help.
We spent a couple of nights in the hostel, but then all of my cash was nearly spent - Foreign bank cards don't work in Iran, and there isn't any Western Unions to have money wired either. So on the third night, i had to leave Dan in the hostel (Dan couldn't lend me any money as his was also nearly all gone), and go and find somewhere else to sleep for the night. In the middle of a clump of trees next to a very busy roundabout was the answer. Luckily i have an Iranian friend called Fahrid in London, who has friends in Tehran. So he was able to transfer some money to his friend Mehdi, who then gave it to us.
We managed to arrange a place to stay through couchsurfing for the next two nights. Two sisters our age - Zohre and Zakie were our hosts. We were their first ever guests and we were treated like royalty upon arrival.
The Uzbekistan Embassy was now open again, so we went there early in the morning and joined the hour-long queue. When it was our turn, it was time for the bad news...We were told the rules had recently changed and that we needed a letter from our own Embassy, basically saying we are cool guys. This isn't unusual, and I've needed them before in the past, but the problem was that the British Embassy in Tehran has been closed for the past two years. Iran and Britain aren't best friends unfortunately. We were told the Swedish Embassy helps British citizens while our Embassy is closed so we headed straight there...We walked in, explained our problem, got laughed at and then told not to come back?!
Another problem with this route was that you can only get a transit visa for Turkmenistan, which lasts for 5 days. For 99% of cyclists that isn't a problem - The Silk Road is a very popular cycle route, which passes through Uzbekistan, and the distance through Turkmenistan to get to Uzbekistan is about 550km. A difficult distance to do in only 5 days on a heavy touring bicycle - but very do-able. However, as we were going a different route to nearly every cyclist that has passed through this way, we would have a different distance to do in the 5 days - 800km, and the day we enter and the day we exit we will have to be at the borders for a long time, so its more like four and a half days we will have.
Two days later we returned. Nobody else there again, just the guy behind the glass. We gave him $40 each, and in return we got a stack of postcards, some Kazakh playing cards and two passports with a Kazakhstan visa in - valid for 90 days! If only every visa application was that easy.
The sisters Zoreh and Zakie, had become great friends to us quickly and they were happy for us to stay longer than the planned two days. Every day a huge lunch would be made for us, and every night an even bigger dinner. Then we would sprawl out and watch a couple of movies until the early hours of the morning, and it soon felt like home.
We spent most of the next week at Zoreh and Zakie's home, but also spent a few days with Mehdi - the friend of a friend who helped us with the money situation. Mehdi knew a bicycle shop owner, so was able to get mine fixed and serviced, and had it looking almost like knew by the time I got it back. Again we had breakfast, lunch and dinner cooked for us every day we were there. Mehdi's home was also the address we'd used for our supply drop - our mothers sent over a package containing my new laptop screen, a little speaker and lots of other things that we'd accidentally left at home. It was delivered exactly when it was supposed to - It felt as though Christmas had arrived.
Another night we drove up to a place that overlooks the whole city. After 5 minutes of siting in the car quietly, we got a knock on the window. A policemen was there telling us to move on, he explained that he could arrest us if we didn't. Zakie mocked him, and told him how powerful she knew he was and that he could do anything he likes because he is a policeman. He obviously didn't like it and started getting quite angry, Zoreh had to get out and try and calm the situation down, while Zakie kept mocking him more. There are so many stupid laws and things that are forbidden in Iran, especially for women, and we'd both said previously that we would have rebelled and probably ended up in prison if we grew up in Iran. So we could see where Zakie was coming from. Zoreh was able to calm the situation down, and we had to leave quickly - our crime was looking at the view of the city.
Iran has definitely been the most interesting country I've been to in my life and absolutely nothing like what we are told it's like on the news and media back home. The people are unbelievably friendly and hospitable. Being a foreigner, even a British one (one of Iran's enemies) is a signal for people to be even kinder and more helpful to you.
Unfortunately most of the people we have met are fed up with the government, and I've never seen a bigger difference between the government and it's people than here in Iran. It may be called the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is ruled by Islamic Law, but many people we've met aren't religious in the slightest - a few have told us they hate religion. Some say they believe in God, but aren't Muslim or any other religion, and every single Muslim that we've met and spoken to about Iran, say's everyone should have a choice and that their laws and government are all wrong. Nobody we've met is happy with the situation. I'm sure everybody here isn't against it, but we haven't met anyone who is happy with it.
I feel for the people - they love foreigners, but foreigners rarely love them until they come to Iran. They love having fun and have a great sense of humor, but the government likes neither of these. The vast majority desperately want a change.
After reading other people's blogs about traveling in Iran, the one problem seemed to be that sometimes the Iranians can be too friendly - that it can be overwhelming at times. I haven't felt this at all. The people are so genuine with their hospitality that I never once tired of it, even when it is person after person trying to help us each day. Dan's 'contacts' page in his phone is now mostly made up of Iranian people who wanted to help us. Whether it was someone buying us a meal, a guy paying for my passport photos, an old lady buying us a big bag of oranges, an old man paying for our taxi fare, or everything in-between, the people have just been awesome. Zeinab and Zakie are two of the kindest people on earth, and are just two of many people we will miss in Iran.
We are very ready for a beer now. Alcohol is illegal in Iran. That doesn't mean you can't find it, but we weren't so lucky. We didn't have many beers in Turkey either, as its expensive in comparison to everything else there, so its the longest either of us has been without a drink. I feel like I need to lose control for a night and go crazy, Iran's government has done that to me. Instead, we're walking along the street getting excited if we see a girls ear or a bit of hair that by law should be covered up. I do love a good ear though.
On a lighter note, Dan said he wanted a haircut the other day, and decided he wanted it shaved off. I immediately volunteered, and he told me he wanted it about 1cm long - was never going to happen...