Thursday, 15 December 2011
Hospital and Hospitality: through northern Iran from Tabriz to Zanjan
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"Hospital" is a bit dramatic, I admit. But I picked up a strain of flu which has been going around Iran, and it really took it out of me. I tried to cycle out of Zanjan after an unpleasant night's coughing and sweating, riding with the famous Matt and Andy (The Cycle Diaries), a couple of English cyclists I'd met when we all took shelter in a Bostan Abad hotel after riding out of Tabriz and into heavy snow. That was a filthy day, as all the passing cars churned the snow into an Iranian toothpaste of snow, grit, mud, petrol and other thankfully unidentifiable roadside crap. We ate dinner and watched the snow fall - one poor guy cleared his car, then went away for half an hour, and when he came back the snow had covered his car again.
The next day was better: it was bright and clear and the snow had stopped, though it was still thick on the ground. Andy suggested that we should follow the motorway, which was wider and clearer than the parallel road (and the guy at the toll booth just laughed and waved us through - bikes win again), even if the lack of facilities started to make itself felt after a while, and at the end of the day I expected we'd be camping. I'm nearly always quite happy to camp; my rule of thumb is that it should be above freezing during the day to make camping reasonably pleasant, and it certainly was. However, Matt and Andy had a magic letter in Farsi which introduced them and what they were doing - Matt showed this to the guys at a local community centre which was about the only building for miles, and without hesitation we were wved in, fed, watered and entertained for the evening. Iranian hospitality is an amazing thing. They turned out to be a gang of navvies who maintain the motorway between Tabriz and Tehran, and the evening passed with a revolving cast of locals coming and going. While we were eating our second evening meal in the warm, I pointed out to Matt that we could have cycled another ten miles if we'd been willing to camp - well, you wouldn't believe the language he gave me in response.
The navvies even gave up their beds for us, which made me feel a bit guilty until I realised that the floor would probably have been softer.
We had an early start the next day as Matt and Andy had arranged to stay with a cyclist in Zanjan, and we had ninety miles to cover. That was when my flu started to make itself felt, as I had a thich head and heavy legs and a chesty cough made worse by the thick fumes from passing HGVs. It should have been an easy day, as there was a strong tailwind and the terrain rolled up and down, and I'd actually had five days off the bike in Tabriz, but my legs weren't getting the message, so it was a day of endurance as I tried to keep up with the others but ended up watching them ride over the horizon while I gritted my teeth and found a plodding pace I could maintain.
I'd also been stopped for a friendly chat by a passing police car, and Andy asked if I had a sign saying "British Spy" above my head, as I'd already been questioned by the police in Azarshar and Tabriz for about five hours apiece after some friendly locals took me hiking up to what was apparently a strategically vital waterfall in the Sahand Mountains. I could have done with a drink after that.
Actually, the hiking trip to Hargalan was a grand day out, despite the views of police station interiors which followed, and which probably wouldn't feature in the highlights reel of anyone's trip to Iran, but it was a relatively painless affair and there was even a touch of comedy when the sergeant in Tabriz offered me his chai as a gesture of tarof (ceremonial politeness - I was supposed to refuse until the third offer) and I unthinkingly took it, much to his amusement. Hey, I was thirsty.
The walking in the high mountains gave me another excuse to rest up in Tabriz for a few extra days, and it was just bad luck that I picked up the flu. Sina - the cyclist we stayed with in Zanjan - and his family expressed concern that I shouldn't be cycling, but I thought I'd be able to ride it off, and I didn't want to burden these kind people with my illness. However, when it took me two and a half hours to ride seven miles away from Zanjan, I decided to turn back.
Sina and his family were amazingly kind and generous. Here's a picture of the food mountain his mother, Soosan, forced on me before I left.
They had already fed the three of us the night before, and invited the family round for a wonderful evening, although I was a bit too ill and lacking in energy to play the part of the guest to the same standard. I'm sure they understood, and Sina insisted I visit the doctor, which was quite a bit different from the UK experience. Instead of just being told to rest up, it was Blammo! straight in with the penicillin injections, one in each buttock plus another in the right for good measure, followed by a course of antibiotics. I was feeling a bit vague and fuzzy, which didn't stop one of the enthusiastic locals from jabbering at me while I was lying across the bed in the surgery like a slab of meat.
Despite feeling distinctly woolly, the flu did give me a welcome excuse to hang around Zanjan with Sina and his family - we had a look around town at the knives for which it's famous, and at the local picnic areas, and I bought Soosan some flowers as a small thank you for the hospitality we'd been shown. We had discussed bringing a gift before we arrived, but as the only place on the motorway was the service station, we decided that a gift of petrol, banana wafers or twenty Mayfair would not be appropriate. Buying the flowers may have been a tactical error, as it only seemed to increase the amount of food I was given when I left. Not that I'm complaining, as home cooked food in Iran is very good indeed, and quite a contrast to the limited fare available at restaurants.
I'd looked at the distance I had to travel, and the time left on my visa, and my ability to ride, and I made the decision to take a bus down to Esfahan. Time was looking to be a real issue, and something had to give. Sina did say that the ride to Esfahan was boring, but I was skeptical about that, as he'd said the same about the route from Bostan Abad to Zanjan, where we passed between glowing mountains and amongst rocky valleys which reminded me of a snowy Arizona. If that's boring, he should try the A167 down to Busby Stoop ona grey Sunday afternoon.
The night bus was an enjoyable run, especially as I was lucky enough to be seated next to an English speaker from Qom, so I now have an open invitation to stay in Qom, which in another country may have been a polite nothing, but Iranians mean this when they say it. Still, I wasn;t unhappy when he got off, as I could then roll up my fleece and lay it against the window for a pillow and get a couple of hours' sleep before the morning arrival into Esfahan.
Linky to Photos on Flickr.