78km Mazdavand to Gonbadli
We’re almost to the border but Iran wasn’t about to let us go without a final farewell show of her hospitality at its best. The country’s kindness started in the morning when we stopped at a small shop for some food and asked where the bakery was so we could buy bread as well. “It’s closed,” the woman said, thinking for a second and then running into her home to bring us two large rounds of bread she’d bought that morning.
Not long down the road, after reaching the peak of a small mountain and cruising down the other side, we cycled out to the beautiful Rabat-e-Sharaf caravanserai, set in green farming fields a short distance from the main route. The holiday period for Iranian New Year isn’t quite over so although we arrived at the caravanserai in the morning, there were already a few families spreading out blankets for tea and midday picnics. We thought we’d picked a quiet spot for our extended lunch break but it wasn’t long before a large family showed up and of course our bikes attracted their attention, particularly of one man.
Ali, apparently captain of the Mashhad police force if we understood correctly, spent the better part of the next two hours using charades and a mix of broken English and Farsi to ask us all kinds of questions about our trip. In between he kept running between his picnic spot and ours to bring us plates of rice, yogurt, bread and cola. Once he returned not with food but with two 20,000 Rial notes in his hand, about $5 U.S. dollars. We protested strongly. Food was one thing but money was really too much.
“It’s like Christmas,” he said, adding: “Eid, Eid.” Ali’s accent was different from what we’re accustomed to so it took us a few moments before we realised he was talking about an annual Muslim festival, during which people give a percentage of their income to others in the community. We tried to refuse again but Ali was having none of it and put the money on our blanket as he walked back to his family. He was back before long, showing us how to pick wild spinach, taking us on a tour of the caravanserai and inviting us to share in more food and Qaylan, a water pipe for smoking tobacco.
We talked for a couple of hours before we all said our goodbyes but just before everyone drove off Ali was back with another gift. This time it was a set of brass knuckles, for our protection. This we definitely couldn’t accept, feeling that kind of cycling accessory was perhaps more trouble than it was worth and not really our preferred method of self-preservation in any case. We showed him our pepper spray and he seemed content with that. With much waving, and instruction to call when we reached Sarakhs, the family set off.
It was slow cycling in the afternoon, stuffed with so much wonderful food, and we’d not been on the road for very long when another happy fellow rolled up beside us on his motorbike. He was hard of hearing and had a speech impediment. This made understanding his Farsi even more difficult but we managed to figure out that he’d seen a few cyclists come by here, including two Germans on a tandem bicycle. He also insisted on heaping us with praise and gifts and before we knew it we were eating cookies by the handfuls.
When we stopped to make our camp just 25km from Sarakhs we felt both excited to be almost in a new country and sad to be leaving one that is truly filled with so many kind-hearted people. The international news doesn’t paint a great picture of Iran but when you put politics aside, we think the West has a lot to learn from this culture.
Our final surprise of the day came when we examined our passports and realised that the date of expiry on our Iranian visa varies by one day between the Iranian calendar and the Western one. Unfortunately our Turkmenistan visa, with fixed dates and no early entry allowed, is set up to coincide with the Western date (the only one we could read) but the Iranian officials may think we’ve overstayed our visa if we show up on April 1st instead of the day before, as the Iranian date indicates. What to do? We plan to show up at the border late tomorrow and see if they would prefer us to spend a night in no man’s land or if they offer another solution. Life is never boring when you’re travelling by bicycle!