Tuesday, September 8, 2015

9 Months of Cycling from the Netherlands to China: The Amazing and Beautiful Iran

Together with the migrant children in a school supported by Right To Play in the Shanghai district (China)

Written by: Wycher Van Vliet
Guest Blogger 

So what about Iran? My first ideas about the country were shaped some time before I decided to take a 9 month-18 countries trip by bicycle; a president who shouts that he hates America, gets support from two angry men with white beards (yes, just one now), and people who share their ideas. Where did I find this information? Television and newspapers.

For over half an hour I cycle past an extraordinary amount of Turkish and Iranian trucks before I reach the border of Turkey with Iran, at Bazargan. It is a hot day in June, and headwinds towards the border are keeping me off my schedule. I am full of fears and I cannot give them a place. What if? It is not the fear itself that gives me an unpleasant feeling, but most of it is the unexpected. It usually returns in my system when I have to pass through a new country. I guess in a way I am still used to a certain feeling of security, but on the other hand I could feel it getting weaker and weaker the further I travelled.
The majestic and beautiful Mount Damavand (کوه دماوند) in the back. At 5610 meters, this semi-active volcano is the highest peak in Iran, and the second highest in all of Asia. 
I am at the border and I cross without any problems. I have to change my money but the counters are closed. There is one open, but when I ask the guy to change my money, he rejects my attempt to change and points at a guy who seems to deal on the black market. But… I just passed the border police. This is a trick, for sure. I am the foreigner that gets caught because I am so stupid to change money, almost in front of the border police. I just need a bit of money for the first days and I know I will get screwed with a rate way below the normal one. So I just take an extra look around, see the blades of air conditioning running on the ceiling, closed counters on my left and decide to change money on the black market (just a random guy). I look around suspiciously, but nothing happens.
View of the city of Tabriz in North-West Iran 

When I arrive in the small city of Maku, I am very curious. How do people live? How do they go to work, what do they eat? Just the simple things, but essential for learning anything about a culture I do not know much about. During my travels, I quickly learned how to connect with people easily. It is a certain flow. I want to know what their story is, how they see things and what their thoughts are. The beauty of traveling is meeting all sorts of people in all kinds of situations. That is what drives me. If I am who I am to people, I know that people will be open to me and that I will be able to get to know them better.
On the mountain road between Tehran, the capital city, and Amol, a city in the north of Iran.
Women in Iran are forced to wear some form of hijab when outside, regardless of their religion or lack thereof. It is the law and it is strictly enforced.  
The low position of the sun indicates that the day is going to end soon. It is still terribly hot and the family I see on my right, sitting on a piece of grass next to some houses, is having a picnic on a small carpet. The children are playing soccer just around the corner in a dusty street. Their loud voices and laughter makes it clear that they are enjoying their time. I am curious and ask the man about some place to sleep near Maku. And my first invitation! They tell me that I can sit with the family on the carpet and enjoy the food they are having. This is extraordinary! I am used to a hasty way of life, sometimes not enjoying everything. These people are not in a hurry at all; it looks so simple and pure. My bicycle seems to be an extraordinary magnet to the children and of course, within minutes I am running around, laughing and shouting with them while playing soccer till sunset. What a difference from Doğubeyazıt in Turkey, where children were throwing stones at me and people tried to hit me with a car without any reason. It is so sad because Turkey overall was on of my best experience up until then with regards to hospitality. (Actually, I think it still is.)
A young boy sitting in a small grocery store window between the city of Mashhad in North-East Iran, and the Sarakhs city border with Turkmenistan. 
Again some stress. I cycle around the main street of Maku, up and down, back and forth. It is getting dark and I need a place to sleep. I do not know what to do. Two guys in the park are driving their motorcycle up and down the park. It is extremely busy in the city. The park is full of families having picnics with tons of food in little bowls and cups spread around the carpet, filled with typical Iranian dishes. The rainbow colored picnic tents are put up all across the grass around me. And once again, I get an invitation. A lawyer and his wife and mother are on their holidays. They speak a little bit of English. So I sit with them till late and enjoy the Iranian food that the women had prepared at home. The family then decides to sleep on the carpet. In this park? I would have never dared to try this in a public park in Amsterdam… I ask again. “Yes, it is safe”, they tell me. The ability to choose whom to trust is also something you learn during extensive traveling. Shortly after, I set up my tent and dream about my previous adventures. The next morning the sounds of birds and voices of people around me wake me up. Again, everything was perfectly fine.
Mountain road from Tehran to Amol.
Next: Tehran, a humid summer day in June. I am struggling to go uphill towards the northern part of Tehran. I was able to cycle on the highways, especially in Tehran and many other cities, without any danger. Mehdi, a very friendly Iranian guy stops his white Khodro (type of car), and asks if I am okay and need anything. This is crazy! I am sweating profusely and a cold drink would make my day. But I tell Mehdi that I really do not need anything now, because I know that it is only another 30 minutes to my hotel. So after a small talk, and many Tarofs (an Iranian cultural phenomena - the method of showing your kindness by refusing 3 times before accepting something), I decide to go uphill again. Mehdi steps into his car and speeds on ahead. 5 minutes later, as soon as my focus is back on the road again, a smiling and honking Mehdi in his white Khodro appears in my small mirror. No way! A few seconds later, I am enjoying some cold drinks and fresh food that Mehdi has specially bought for me. This is just stunning!

The month and a half I spent in this country was full of great experiences. Although local governmental institutions sometimes showed their misplaced paranoia, I accepted it because Iran is not a standard country to visit, as of yet.
Group of friends who invited me to a wedding party, and then provided me with a place to sleep in the city of Minudasht in the Golestan province, Northern Iran.
Overall I have learned that my experiences during my trips are totally different from the views I have before I visit. It sometimes feels as if the huge amount of information brought to me during my childhood (not the information from my parents of course ;)), is sometimes totally doubtful, especially information brought by different sources of media. This information comes from a pre-determined environment in which we assume it to be true instead of asking ourselves the critical question: what are these information based on? Seeing countries for myself were far more educating than just reading about the bad things going on there. You just need to feel the vibe.

Iran is a good example. Most people I spoke to are very well-educated, have big dreams, and work hard. They do not shout that they hate America. The drive and positive energy they have is unbelievable. The country in which they are living does not give them all opportunities; it is family life, tradition, and an extremely civilized culture that holds them together. And maybe it is also partly their situation that makes them tremendously driven. There is only a very small group that represents the limited thoughts of the Iranian government, which is what we are shown on the media. There is a clear distinction that the well-civilized majority understands very well; All around the country people emphasize the fact that they are different than the people who are ruling their country. “We are people offering you hospitality, we do not want war”, is a sentence I heard many times. Just like “Ask us anything and we will take care of it.” This is the real Iran, full of people wanting to make something of their lives, surrounded by their relatives, extremely strong roots, and giving me the best hospitality experience I have ever had in my whole life.
Ferdowsi Museum in Mashhad, a large city in the North-East of Iran.
I feel guilty about my previous thoughts, because I realize that many people in western countries share the same ideas about Iran that I had before. Iran and its people just do not deserve this!

As I push my bike across the border towards the deserts of Turkmenistan, I take one more look over my shoulder: it makes me instantly forget the typical traveler’s illness of terrible pain in my stomach, the yearning for water and shade. This was Iran. The country that surprised me in a superb way and gave me one of the warmest feelings during my trip. Mamnoon, Iran.

In the northern town of Saari (ساری)
About Wycher:

Raised in a family who is used to travelling around the world, Wycher has continued this spirit of going everywhere. Driven by a need for adventure and pushing his own boundaries, Wycher decided to take a trip by bicycle, starting from the Netherlands all the way to China, in 2011. So in March 2012, he left his hometown in the Netherlands to cycle to Shanghai for more than 9 months through 18 countries. Iran was one of those countries. In doing so, he also raised money for Right To Play, an organization that uses sports and games to enhance child development in areas of disadvantage. At the moment, he works, studies, and lives in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
Together with the kids of a primary school in The Netherlands. I gave a presentation about my trip. The kids raised over 7000 euros for my Right To Play project during a day of sport and play.


  1. It was a pleasure reading your post.Taking up such a long journey in bicycle is not that simple.And we never know how are the local inhabitants are going to treat us.Now this post has inspired to take a ride,but definitely not on bicycle..You might want to click here to read about my ride.


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