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First Days of Persian Adventures

First days of riding in Iran on my own motorcycle meeting the friendly locals and experiencing the culture

Motorcycle in a desert landscape

The last few hours of riding were like moving further and further into the unknown, unfamiliar territory. The south-eastern Armenia extending all the way down to the Iranian border didn’t feel completely different. With the rare exception such as Tatev monastery there wasn’t any green left - instead, the scenery around was a mixture of rocky mountains and sandy plains. A semi-desert landscape gave a preview of the next destination of my trip - riding across Iran on a motorbike.

Meghri was the last decent-size Armenian town that I’ve passed. From there, the road goes along a river and also a border fence with security cameras dotted around. On the other side of the river, in a seemingly unchanged scenery is another settlement - but this is already Iranian land. I didn’t know much about the country except that it is a home of ancient Persian civilization, strict Islamic laws and a place where one has to be rather careful. The perception didn’t get any better after watching the “Argo” movie that describes the story of American Embassy workers being taken hostage in Tehran. Last but not the least, the regulations concerning temporary importation of foreign motorcycles into Iran have been changing rapidly in the past few months - so I wasn’t even sure I’ll be able to enter the country.

To my great surprise, the Armenian side of the border is guarded by the Russian border forces. The guards were, as always, curious about my trip and the document check went very smoothly. I’ve been wished good luck and rode across a bridge to a border gate on the other side. In front of me, with the desert and rocky mountains in the background, was a huge Iranian flag fluttering in the wind. The scene near the gate on the other side was rather chaotic - many truck drivers were passing the border here and no one spoke English. It took me a while to navigate the bureaucracy and even some arguments with the customs officials - the rule banning big motorbikes coming into Iran was cancelled only a few days ago and the customs weren’t aware of the change. Eventually, after a few more stamps and pieces of paper were handed in, the last barrier was raised and I rode into a completely uncharted territory. I was in Iran - on my motorcycle - and Ayatollah Khomeini looked strictly at me from one of the posters.

While the border crossing itself was a bit of a bureaucratic headache, the very first stop I made to exchange some money, just a few meters down the road, changed the mood completely. The owner of the exchange booth gave me a reasonable fair rate (which I googled in advance as the official rate and the “real” rate is different in Iran). As I came out of the shop just a couple minutes later, my bike was already encircled with a small crowd of people. Everyone wanted to take a selfie, shake my hand, ask questions, give me some advice and in general welcome me to Iran in any way possible. This will be a common occurrence in the next couple of weeks that I’ll be riding across Iran. 

As I followed a small fairly empty - but excellent quality - road towards the bigger town of Jolfa I kept admiring the landscape around me. It felt like nothing I’ve experienced before, with conical rocks here and there and a desert in the distance. Riding through smaller villages just highlighted how different that land was to anything I’ve experienced before - the houses no longer looked familiar, more resembling the scenes from the American movies about Middle Eastern countries. After I rode through Jolfa the road turned into an excellent dual carriageway autobahn-like road. The riding felt easy, especially after navigating beaten up roads in Armenia. Almost every passing car honked as it drove past me (I kept the speed lower, getting familiar with the new country and driving conditions) and gave me a welcoming wave. I had 150kms or so left to ride to Tabriz and it took me less than a couple of hours - so I reached my first stop for the night even before the sun began to set.

Motorcycle stopped along a wide motorway with desert in the background
A typical roadside stop in Iran

As I reached the city the driving conditions have changed dramatically. What was a relaxing ride on a wide, good quality motorway turned into a city riding mayhem. The roads were packed to the brim and every vehicle seemed to be mere centimeters away from another one. The concept of “safe distance” just didn’t exist - the moment there was a gap opening up it was instantly filled with another vehicle. It felt almost as if the cars were bumping each other out of the way. I made a mental note that I should definitely get the local third party insurance the next day - getting into an accident seemed like a distinct possibility and not having the compulsory insurance would put me on the wrong side of the Iranian laws. Not a situation I would want to be in.

Then the quest for accommodation began. The hotel booking websites that we are so familiar with simply don’t work in Iran. I realized it has been a long while since I’ve been looking for places to stay by just stopping by every hotel that I see. After a whole day of riding - and I’ve been riding for 8 hours already - and the scorching heat that wasn’t an enjoyable thing to do. To add to the confusion, the Iranian currency has recently been wildly fluctuating (mostly collapsing). This has led to a bizarre situation where large, posh, luxurious hotels didn’t have a chance to adjust their prices accordingly and ended up costing less than beaten up flea houses that were more dynamic with their pricing. Some of the hotels also were willing to give arbitrary “discounts” without even being asked while others won’t budge on price. Eventually I found one with nice, clean rooms, a welcoming manager and a safe underground parking for my motorbike. The price per night was roughly $20 - before the currency collapse it would have cost me around $100.

Meat kebab with vegetables on a bread
A simple but delicious Iranian kebab

After sorting out errands like a sim card and getting water I got my first introduction into Iranian dining experience. I like to visit local eateries when traveling, the more local it looks - the better. In one of those the owner quickly found someone speaking some English so at least I can try to order what I like. That wasn’t strictly speaking required as there was pretty much just 1 dish on offer - a delicious-looking kebab in a bread. Still, it was nice to have someone helping with translation as there were locals coming in and everyone wanted to talk to me. Iranians are very welcoming to foreign visitors and are very curious as well - they will always ask about your country, your trip - even your family. They want to know all of it.

I was also introduced to the tradition of “Taarof” - an Iranian custom of refusing payment, but not really refusing. When it's time to pay for the food or a service like a taxi, it's customary that the owner will refuse payment at first. This is to highlight that the service provided was with an open heart and not just for money. The customer should continue to insist on paying - apparently up to 3 times - and the owner will eventually “reluctantly” accept the payment. It’s a little like a social game except some foreign visitors aren’t aware of it - and, being refused the payment - happily walk away. This is probably the origin of some stories about how one traveled Iran for a month on $50.

The kebab while being delicious also threw my stomach into a bit of an upset. Hence I extended my stay in Tabriz, exploring the mosques, a big bazaar and exchanging money in a wild haggling experience. Credit cards don’t work in Iran so one has to bring USD or EUR cash and then exchange it to a local currency. The best rates are to be had in a bazaar but it's not an experience for the faint hearted. There are dozens of people running around with wads of cash, shouting exchange rates - and, of course, foreigners get special attention. Still, I enjoyed that experience and I was constantly trying to soak up the culture and environment around me like a sponge. It felt different and it felt exciting.

Tabriz Mosque
A mosque in Tabriz

As I was leaving Tabriz 2 days later I stopped by to get insurance for the motorbike which I made a mental note of when I arrived. This turned into another highlight of Iranian hospitality. Tabriz isn’t a touristy city at all and Iran as a whole only sees a handful of overlanders passing through due to Carnet de Passage (customs document) requirements. Yet there was a lady in the insurance office that spoke very good English and sold me the insurance at the official (fair) price - it cost me roughly $5 for a month. Meanwhile, the owner came out to greet me and offer me some tea. The final touch was - when the tea was served - the lady reached into her own purse to fish out a few chocolate candies to offer me to go with the tea. That final gesture has completely melted my heart.

As I hit the road I headed towards Qazvin, another city around 5 hours away, while still unsure where I would stay for the night. As I arrived in Tabriz I’ve registered at Couchsurfing (couldn’t have done this in an “easier” country before, right?) and arranged to stay with a local in Qazvin. Only it turned out that the host, Sepi, is a young lady about my age and lives with her sister and her mom - and her mom happened to be away these days. I didn’t have any inappropriate intentions about that plan and I simply wanted to stay with a local and make new friends. However, Iran has very strict Islamic laws and in their eyes a foreign unmarried non-Muslim man staying in a house with 2 local Muslim unmarried women is a huge no-no and can land all parties in a big trouble. Especially as anywhere I go with my bike I attract the immediate attention of the locals - and you only need one person to take it the wrong way and to inform the police. However, as I arrived in Qazvin it turned out the hotels were completely full so that left me with no choice but to head over to my host’s house. I was only hoping she, as a local, knows what she is doing.

Sure enough as I parked the bike outside of her house 2 local teenagers began chatting to me, taking pictures with the bike and sharing it on their Instagram. I wasn’t particularly worried about them as they seemed harmless but I was concerned about the attention this is drawing. As Sepi came down to greet me she also seemed a bit worried - so we quickly rolled the bike inside her courtyard, parked in the very far corner and put a cover on it. We quickly sneaked into the house and only then properly introduced each other and made a short conversation. Still, throughout the evening and night I was cautiously waiting for the police to bang on the door and eventually drag us into an Iranian jail.

Two persons giving thumbs up in front of a motorcycle
Sepi, my host in Qazvin

The experience was certainly worth the risk though. Sepi showed me around the city, explained a few things to me about the Iranian culture and political situation that I wasn’t aware of. It seemed like the society is torn into those who are actively pro-government and against it, with those against doing little signs of rebellion such as throwing some closed parties with alcohol and mini-skirts being worn. As we were having dinner with Sepi and her Iranian friends the main topic of the conversation was the visas. Iranian passports are one of the weakest in the world. They need a visa to go to most places - and the visas are mostly refused. It made me think again about the passport privilege and how many of us just take it for granted.

As I packed the bike the next morning and was saying goodbyes to Sepi she reached for a hug and a kiss on the cheek. At this very moment her neighbor opened the door to the courtyard - we quickly switched to a modest handshake to say our goodbyes.

It was the beginning of another 6 hours ride across the desert to the city of Isfahan, one of the main tourist attractions in Iran and filled with adventures. And there’ll be a time for a story about that too….


The founder of Andalus Moto Rentals, Alex is an avid motorcycle traveler. He started with short classic trips around Europe, explored some of Asian countries on rental motorbikes. He eventually embarked on a solo motorcycle journey from Europe to Australia passing through Europe, Middle East, South and South East Asia.

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