When you think of visiting Iran, you probably don't think of great holidays. In fact, I bet you're still trying to get your head around the prefix "Islamic Republic." So here's my own story, of how an Australian structural engineer traveled the world, only to discover the world's thumping heart before moving to Iran.
While studying engineering at the University of Queensland, I won a scholarship to go on exchange to the National University of Singapore. Perhaps this was when I caught the travel bug, because in early 2011 at the age of 23 I put my engineering career on hold to go traveling. No plans, no desires, just a deep urge to discover the world with new eyes.
First stop - London. Traveling wasn't as easy as I remembered arriving at Liverpool Underground at 2 am in the middle of winter. Here a lone Australian, without any accommodation bookings, trying to find a hostel like in South East Asia - a big mistake. The Hilton Penthouse suite was actually quite nice though, but I'm sure the reception were surprised to receive a summer dressed backpacker at 3am. However it wasn't long before the cold and bleak English weather pushed me southward.
Arriving to Italy and Spain in springtime was a start; the festivals were incredible, but not the drinking, rather just the genuine celebration of life. I was so wrapped up in the culture I went au pairing in Galicia to teach English. The kids were great, the food was wonderful, and I learned Spanish relatively well, however it wasn't long before I sought more cultured experiences. So the most logical place to travel nearby was Marrakesh, Morocco.
Au Pairing in Pobra Do Caraminal, Galicia, Spain.
The Moroccan culture was heavy. Upon arrival I stumbled across a few abusive men spewing the worst foul language I had ever heard in my life, simply because I refused to be escorted to my hotel. Though my troubles had soon washed away once arriving in the traditional riad in the old Moroccan medina. It was absolutely beautiful - the smell of spices made me realize why I went traveling in the first place. The guests shared stories over smokepipe and tea on the roof; courtesy of our host named Abdul. After my first experiences in Morroco, Adbul had an incredibly humble and friendly nature. He taught me about Islam, traditional prayer, north African culture, and helped arrange my trip to the Sahara Desert and climb Jbel Toubkal mountain.
Traveling from tall rocky valleys to riding camels in the Sahara desert with Berbers, then camping under the stars to climbing the highest mountain in North Africa through snow; the rich Moroccan culture was nothing short of uplifting. When climbing Toubkal I met some hilarious engineers from Rabat, however nothing went to my heart quite as much as hearing Aḏhān: the music for God. I found the devotion to God profound and coupled with Morocco's rich culture I was deeply moved by the experience. Perhaps this was my "Cat Stevens moment".
Climbing Jbel Toubkal, Highest Summit in North Africa.
Camping with Berbers, Sahara Desert, Morocco.
Tall Sand Dune Mountains, Sahara Desert, Morocco.
After Morocco I had an opportunity to travel from Wales to Scotland and Ireland, before catching a flight to Toronto, Canada. The next seasons were spent traveling from Old England to New England, and eventually down to Patagonia over the next 9 months. What an epic adventure this was, traveling every way possible from volcano surfing to mountain snow climbs, Carib reef diving to hitchhiking Patagonia 'con dedo,' forest treks like Machu Picchu to boating San Blas into Colombia. During this time I discovered three travel tips:
1) Overland trips were the best way to travel;
2) Be careful trusting strangers while traveling;
3) The best travel experiences could be had while cycling.
Pico De Orizaba Volcano Mouth, Veracruz-Puebla, México.
Hitch hiking Argentina and Chile with Dutch friend.
By the time spring arrived in Spring 2012, I found myself in Rio de Janeiro for Carnival after traveling the full length of the Americas. However there was no sitting and staying in my going: swapping a desk chair for a bus seat wasn't my idea of traveling, so I decided to cycle from Ireland to the Middle East in the general direction of Australia instead. To travel solo with the power of my body, rather than passenger seats, was the best decision of my life.
Strong Tailwind on Oosterscheldekering, The Longest of the Delta Works in Netherlands.
Originally I planned to cycle from Belfast to Anatolia, then Israel and Cairo, all within a 5 month period. While I couldn't estimate how many kilometers I could reach per day, I had a flight pre-booked from Dubai to Jakarta in October 2012. However my journey changed along the way.
Cycling through Iran didn't seem like a good idea at the time, so I thought cycling from Turkey to Syria would surely be a better option. However by the time I reached Eastern Europe my plans quickly changed; other travelers convinced me cycling through Iran to India would be a better option. Little did I know at the time the Pakistan visa was virtually impossible to get: I was rejected at every Pakistani embassy from Vienna to Istanbul. So here I was, cycling the threshold of the East into the Islamic heartland with no plans.
Every local I met along the way warned me about visiting Iran: Ahmadinejad was in power at the time, and I was constantly reminded of the arrests, along with the clothing requirements, banking restrictions, and language barriers. Yet simply being raised Catholic had me worried enough: I didn't know how locals would react if I told them I wasn't Muslim: like it was an offense for not being Muslim in a country with strict Sharia laws.
I had wild thoughts:
"Would I be refused entry at the border? How about facing a random execution like our mainstream media suggests?"
Well after experiencing how painfully difficult it was to get the Iranian visa, I had almost believed the stories. I thought to myself:
"Why would the visa be so difficult to get, unless of course, Iran was unsafe?"
The Iranian embassy in Berlin and Vienna turned me away without blushing. This was until I met a young Iranian ambassador in Prague, and in a breath of fresh air not only did he speak English, but he sat me down in traditional Persian style, and gave me clear steps to get the Iran visa in Budapest.
Things became much easier after this point: I was averaging over 100 kms per day on the bike, the culture grew richer, and the wild camping brought me back 1000 years. Still, every Turk I met advised it was impossible to cycle across Iran (Is that legal? You won't survive). However after visiting Rumi (Mowlana) in Konya, remembering the profound writings of the Persian poet from my university days, I found ample strength to continue further east. But this time with a savvy English cyclist I met in Istanbul, James Desmond.
The Turkish head winds were the worst we had experienced. Until when reaching Samsun on the Black Sea coastline, we stayed with Şahan Gürkan, an Istanbuli Baritone and his opera singing wife for a few nights. Going to the cable ski park, their Madam Butterfly rehearsal, and seeing how progressive Turks lived was very refreshing after battling the tough Turkish inland roads.
After Samsun the culture got a lot more interesting. Cycling further east we found green landscapes, bustling markets, memories of Stalin's Union, and met another cyclist from France, Xavier-Loup Beirnaert. We passed biblical Mt Ararat before eventually splitting up in Yerevan after some 3,000 kms cycling through Turkey and Georgia.
Rest After Climbing Georgian Mountainside.
Cycling Passed Biblical Mt Ararat in Armenia.
After this point I found the southern Armenian roads in absolute horrible condition, and myself in tears facing my Iranian fears alone in the middle of nowhere: thinking Is Iran Safe? This was until reaching the Meghri Pass: the feeling towering above the historical gateway to Persia was nothing short of powerful, cycling and singing myself down to Iran's doorstep on the Aras River.
Visiting Iran: Armenia's Meghri Pass to Iran's border (2535m elevation).
It felt like traveling as an old caravan camping the first night in Iran under the stars, perhaps even more so after meeting the stranger, Akbar Nagdi, in Marand on my first day. The young man came out of a fuel station on his bike and handed me a can of Rani Float, then offered to take me into town to show me a restaurant. Honestly I was worried at the time, a strange guy trying to offer me drinks and then a kebabi lunch? This pushed my 'Travel Rule #2' buttons I learned from America: "Be careful trusting strangers." I didn't want to fight over the tarof lunch but when Akbar took me to his mother's shop, fully cladded in black chador, I was just about to cycle for the hills. Yet Akbar again insisted on giving me free snacks and drinks, and without being rude, in true Anglo-Dutch fashion, I politely tried to convince them I would pay, but they wouldn't accept. Akbar even cycled with me out of town to the highway towards Tabriz, only to depart with one of the warmest smiles, a friendly handshake, and congenial blessings I had ever felt. From this point my fears of Iran shifted completely.
The more I cycled through Iran the more I realized the Iranian culture was indeed the essence of what I read about in those poetry books many years ago. At the time I had written on Facebook "Iran is the heart of the world," both geographically and metaphysically speaking anyway.
Visiting Iran: Akbar and myself in Marand, East Azerbaijan. Oct 2012.
I found the locals that caught me around Azerbaijan to be good humored and hospitable. For only to meet, offer a drink, and share a warm smile: it was a much nicer welcoming than I had previously expected from the Islamic Republic. It didn't take long before I realized that almost everything I had previously thought about Iran from the media was generally false. After all, some of the most influential philosophers in my life had come from this region: Rumi, Hafez, Shams of Tabriz, and Merwan Sheriar Irani. The Lebanese writer Khalil Gibran also connected Christianity to Sufism for me, so I had always felt drawn to the universal teachings around Iran. Perhaps it's true that only from pain can real flowers grow.
During my stay in Iran I met local Iranians from many walks of life: including progressive youths in Tehran, relaxed entrepreneurs in Shiraz, proud and cultured Isfahanis, chador covered Mashhadis, Afghanis in Bandar Abbas, and Arabs on Qeshm Island. Each distinct culture was just as friendly as the next: the humored brothers in Isfahan's bazaar, the truck drivers around Naine who insisted on driving me to Meybod (Me: "I'm okay, cycling is fun!," Them: "Isfahan?"), my cycling host Roozbe in Beyza, and the warm gentleman in Meybod who gave me pomegranate and directions. A Shirazi writer also offered me a copy of his poetry e-book: what a pleasant gift.
Visiting Iran: Meeting friendly soldiers on ferry to Qeshm in Persian Gulf with Roozbe.
Traveling through Iran wasn't always easy though. Firstly the local regulations made it difficult to really connect deeply to Iran's rich culture. Secondly it was hard to find a good value hotel by international standards. And lastly it was painful finding a good meal at a local restaurant: after all - I needed fuel to satisfy my growing cycle hunger.
Despite the challenges I felt a strong connection to Iran and the culture around the region. The road network felt like the veins of the entire world's civilization, and the diverse cultures it's blood life. So my plans changed: I let my Jakarta flight lapse and I instead cycled overland through Central Asia during winter, until eventually reaching Kuala Lumpur.
After receiving my Chinese and Central Asian visas, I was on my way to Mashhad towards the Sarakhs border. And what better way to depart Iran than to visit the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza. After overcoming my fears of not being allowed inside, I managed to touch the holy shrine if only to leave a prayer for a brief moment. The energy flowing through my veins was incredible. Here I was, at the center of the earth, the farthest I've ever felt from home, touching the most powerful mosque I've ever seen.
I was just about to cycle the silk road to Bukhara, Dunhuang and East Asia: it really did feel like traveling the traditional caravan experience, alone in the middle of the Turkmen Karakum and Chinese Taklimakan Deserts, only to meet with roadside strangers.
Meeting Turkmen on edge of Karakum Desert.
Uzbeks Taking me Inside their Bakery Factory During Night Frost.
Camping inside a Soviet Army truck to Escape the Cold, Kyrgyzstan.
Mountains, sunshine, horses and rabbit hat in Kyrgyzstan.
Icicled cogset in Kazakhstan.
Over the next 6 months until April 2013 I cycled to Kuala Lumpur. However by this time I was averaging 170 kms per day - with a much larger appetite also.
Langmusi, Gansu, China.
Youths on Traditional Buddhist Pilgrimage, China Qinghai Plateau.
Lifting my life in one hand. Hai Van Pass, Vietnam.
Cycling Northern Thailand Mountains in High Humidity and Sweat Puddles under Elbows.
By the time I reached Australia after cycling 20,000 kms on the saddle, something unexpected happened: the day I touched Imam Reza's Shrine, I had just finished reading 'All the Shah's Men,' a book about Iran's modern history over the past 100 years leading up until the 1979 Islamic Revolution. When at the time of touching the shrine, I had only two thoughts crossing my mind: (1) the prosperity of the Iranian peoples, and (2) the happiness of a peaceful girl I met whilst in Iran. While I'm not sure my first prayer materialized, the second thought materialized rather creatively: in 2014 I married the girl and we have since moved to Iran, well, at least I hope I can make her happy.
Since this time I obtained my professional engineering license, but I also wondered about the first prayer: Iran's prosperity. So in 2015, my wife and I decided to make a great effort to bring the whole story together, that is engineer-a-travel-platform-to-breakdown-the-walls-around-Iran. The website is called 'Searching for Iran' sfiran.com) in both English and Persian.
Searching for Iran
The project has demanded almost all of our time and personal savings since starting. But we aim to grow by helping to answer those 3 simple questions: how to connect to Iran's rich culture through stories and trips, how to find quality hotels, and also restaurants in Iran. It's a community website with free account access for people to promote their own story, including travel agents, hotels, restaurants, tour guides, and travelers to all come together. But ultimately this project is made for the wider public to be optimistic "Searching for Iran," to discover the heart of the world with new eyes.
As for the cycling? - It was the most challenging, yet worthwhile aspect of my entire life. Well maybe apart from questioning western policy in the Middle East (a painful burden I wouldn't wish on anybody). But in the future I look forward to cycling further around the region to understand more about its cultural treasures.
Have you been to Iran, can you share a similar story? Feel free to join us 'Searching for Iran,' or let us know what you think of Iran's history and culture.
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