If travelling is at its most rewarding when we're pushed outside our comfort zone, introduced to new cultures and welcomed into the hearts and homes of locals, then Iran might just be the most rewarding destination on earth.
Right from the moment we outlined our cycling route along the Silk Road, Iran conjured mystical images in my mind. Like an oasis deep in the desert, we'd heard whispers of a fascinating country whose culture has given us some of the finest architecture, poetry and culinary delights this world has to offer.
On the other hand, Iran's inclusion in the infamous 'Axis of Evil' could lead some to believe this is a far from safe travel destination. Yet we'd been assured by all those who'd stepped foot on Iranian soil that this country is home to some of the most curious and friendly locals you could ever meet. And Iranian hospitality didn't disappoint, treating us to some of the most memorable moments of our trip to date.
So after 70 days and cycling 2345km, here's our rough guide to cycle touring in Iran.
Cost of living
We spent $US 800 in 70 days in Iran, which averages out at $5.70 per person per day.
- The price of hotels / hostels in Iran was pretty inconsistent. We found everything from $3 per person for a private room, to $10 per person for a dorm, and $15 per person for a luxury double.
- If you're on a tight budget, ask for around for the local Mosaferkhane (passenger home), which will cost $3-5.
- Falafel sandwiches are a winner for $1
- You can find Khoresht (stew and rice) in every restaurant for $2.
A visit to Iran will introduce you to a stunning variety of culinary delights, although you'll have to dig a little deeper than your average restaurant. A quick wander in the door and it's not hard to believe the only food on offer is Kebab, Kebab and more Kebabs. But don't be despaired, with invitations into family homes flying in thick and fast, you'll be introduced to a diverse spectrum of foods.
A quick look at Iran's place on the map and you'll be quick to understand why it's scope of food is so vast. At the heart of the ancient Persian empire, and sitting at the centre of the Silk Road, Iran has borrowed ideas from the Soviets, Chinese, Indians, Ottomans and Europeans who wandered through it's lands. To top it off, Iran has four distinct seasons and the vast arid land has been turned into fertile oasis via underground aquifiers, giving birth to a bright, fruit and herb filled cuisine.
Three of my favourite Iranian dishes:
- Bademjan - A delicously thick, rich stew made from eggplants and tomatoes. You'll quickly forget any health resolutions with one oily mouth-full.
- Gormeh Sabzi - My go to dish after 70 days in Iran, gormeh sabzi is made from herbs, kindney beans and lamb to create a deep green stew full of sour flavours.
- Anything from Tabriz - A cycle tourists food haven, Tabriz is full of workers restaurants offering up all manor of tasty dishes for $1. Be sure to try the omlettes and soups, or a breakast of boied potato and egg. I never new such simple food could taste so mouthwateringly good.
Iranians are hands down the the most hospitable people you're ever likely to meet. It's said that guests are a gift from god and the locals will treat you as if you're royalty itself.
It was only 4 hours into our visit before we were whisked away to a warm carpet covered room, steaming tea in hands and smiles on our faces. In over 2 months we spent 75% of our time staying with locals and these moments remain to be some of our fondest memories.
If things go wrong, don't worry, because no matter where you are, there will be no shortage of Iranians on hand to help. Sometimes you'll even feel that they're waiting behind trees to jump out and help the first tourist they see.
But be ware, Iranian hospitality knows no end and the hardest thing you'll find is actually leaving someone's house. On many occasions we dropped in to stay the night, which quickly turned into 4.
After awhile, their infamous hospitality may take a suffocating turn, as your every need and whim is met. You'll be taken to places you really want to see, even if you really don't. But to fight it is futile and you'd miss some of the most beautiful moments of your trip.
The beauty of travelling Iran is meeting it's people, so just say yes, learn the art of surrender, and hold on for what will undoubtably be a memorable ride.
A trip to Iran isn't complete without a few cultural mis-steps and awkward moments. So it's best to get your head around the system of Taarof before you arrive.
At it's heart, Taarof is a cultural system of politeness, whereby friends and strangers will offer to pay for each other. You're likely to hear taxi drivers and bazaar shop owners say 'don't worry about it', just as you go to pay. But it can be more complex than it sounds, as one Iranian woman informed us "sometimes people don't actually mean what they say".
So if anyone offers you something, say no 3 times and if they still insist, you know the offer is for real.
With long desert stretches and lung choking traffic on main roads, Iran can offer up some challenging cycling. But with a plethora of back roads and an adventurous heart, you'll also find some seriously awesome rides.
We highly recommend getting lost in the Zagros mountains, and the ride from Isfahan to Izeh and Khuzestan was the best week of cycling in our trip.
Also, there's a beautiful ride that follows secondary roads from Shiraz to Yazd. You'll see the ancient ruins of Persepolis, cross the last of the Zagros mountains on your way to Bavanat, delve deep into the Dash-e Lut desert and find a thousand year old Caravanserai in Marvast. This 1 week cycling route will show the best Iran has to offer!
Iran surprised us with the beauty of its natural environments, which could make for a cycle tourers camping paradise. There's only 1 obstacle though. You might actually find it near on impossible to pitch the tent for a night, just like we did on many occasions.
Be sure to find a spot miles from the closest town, otherwise you'll have no shortage of visitors warning you of deadly dangers like tigers and extreme conditions. Sometimes your visitors won't take no lightly and they'll do their best to drag you back home for the night. But if you do persist, you're likely to find yourself some seriously Instagram worthy campsites.
With the kindest people on earth, endless tasty treats and ancient Caravanserai to be found, Iran turned out to be an absolute highlight of our trip. Any adventure along the Silk Road isn't complete without falling in love with this fascinating country.