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Shifting Gears, Wrestling Pride


10 Aug 2010 17:163 Comments

[ passport ] Riding a bicycle across Iran in the dead of summer is not unheard of -- some travelers do it every year, most of them on long hauls from Europe to Asia. There is also a small but dedicated biking community in Iran. One Iranian couple even cycled the globe for two years, promoting peace and understanding about their country. My vision of cycling across Iran was less ambitious. I imagined slowly riding from the lush rice paddies near the border of Azerbaijan to the stark deserts near Afghanistan, stopping in villages as I liked, experiencing the hospitality that Iran is known for, but even more intensely, simply because I was a tourist on a bike.

I was given the name and number of Bijan, the guru of cycling in Tehran, from a friend who had biked through and stayed with him the year before. Bijan is a skinny, 30-something Canadian Iranian with light hair and round eyeglasses. He has biked all over North America, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. When I arrived in the capital, he rode 30 kilometers from his home in working-class south Tehran to where I was staying in the posh north just to reassemble my bike, which had flown with me from San Francisco in a giant bicycle box. As he worked away on it, Bijan informed me that the route that I had chosen, along the Caspian Sea, is a virtual race course in the summer, full of speeding Tehranis on vacation at their private villas.

Auto accidents are the second biggest cause of death in Iran and the traffic had already made me skittish, so I was relieved when Bijan suggested that he and another cyclist accompany me, as they had my friend the previous summer. He also suggested we change the route and take a less traveled one along the Iraq border through the hilly western region of Kurdistan.

As we planned our trip, Bijan picked up on signs that I was not in his league as a cyclist. To him, biking 100 kilometers a day is wimpy. When I told him I usually bike only 50, a vein popped out on his forehead. Bijan biked to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. I biked with idealistic hopes of getting to know a place better. Bijan's bike gear was well-worn and utilitarian. Mine was new, and too often pink.

Two days before we were set to leave, Bijan and I went for a "test ride" in Tehran. When he arrived at my house, I emerged wearing a bike skirt over biking pants and a blue headscarf sewn to my helmet. He asked if I was going to a party rather than a bike ride. We were set to go an easy 30 kilometers through the tangle of north Tehran traffic in the direction of the Alborz Mountains, uphill.

On the street, the usual flood of cars awaited us, speeding, jerking randomly from left to right, braking out of nowhere. Bijan raced ahead -- this was his natural habitat. When we came to a busy roundabout, I hopped off my bike to cautiously cross the street while Bijan weaved across as effortlessly as a fish swimming through water. He looked back, yelling, "Why'd you stop, aye?"

As I slowly began riding across a side street, two women in chadors driving a dusty white Pakyan glanced to either side, yet neglected to look directly in front of them as their car gunned in my direction. I screamed as loud as I could. The moment they stopped -- just a few feet from me -- I pulled my foot out of the pedal and placed it on their front bumper, waving my hands in the air as if to say, What the hell are you doing!? It was not the first time something like this happened as I biked in Iran, and it was not the last. I hated the fact that experiencing Iran as a cyclist turned me into what I loathed: a tourist expecting the locals to behave -- and drive -- like I was used to back home.

I caught up to Bijan on a corner where he was casually drinking water and eating almonds. "Sorry," I panted. "It's hard for me." He smiled, handed me the almonds, put his water bottle into its carrier on his bike, and charged ahead. Tough love, that was what he thought was best for me. As we neared the end of the Tehran sprawl, we rode into an area with a village-like atmosphere. We went uphill, past a herd of goats and quaint, tiny homes. Just as the ride was turning somewhat enjoyable, a large truck using the road as a shortcut tore by, its big wheels kicking fine gravel mixed with hot diesel exhaust up into my face.

Even this high up, the stifling fumes from Tehran were still present. It felt like my throat was constricting. I got off my bike and let it land on the ground, bending over with my hands on my knees. As much as I wanted to prove that I would be a great biking companion, I was failing miserably.

When we returned to where I was staying, Bijan, usually overly helpful, resisted the urge to assist so he could observe as I lifted my bulky 30-pound bike up the marble steps to the door of my friend's home. "Take a rest, Michelle. I will call you later." He rode 30 kilometers south to his home after that, through Tehran's most horrendous traffic.

Two hours later he rang, making small talk for a minute before launching into what felt like an "intervention." My vice was not alcohol, drugs, or gambling, it was cycling -- he explained that it was a hazard to my health and that I was really bad at it. "If you were my sister, I would forbid you from going biking here. You are not ready for Iran. Why couldn't you have taken your bike to Germany, aye? They have bike paths there." My blood began to boil. My heart began to break, as well, because Bijan was saying what I knew but was too proud to admit, especially after all the training and hassle I'd been through to get there.

Moments later I received a phone call from the other biker who was supposed to go with us to Kurdistan. His English was not so good, but his message was clear: "Michelle, please, no go Sanandaj." A Japanese cyclist who had visited more than 170 countries in the past decade and was currently in Tehran emailed me next. The message detailed the story of a Swiss woman who just rode her bike from Europe to Tehran only to get hit by a car.

I left for Tabriz on my own two days later, partly out of spite, partly out of stubbornness, partly in denial. The 600 kilometers could be traversed in a casual and safe ten days, I rationalized. I pushed myself to pedal faster and longer than ever before. It was a long, sweaty, lonely ride, but I was trying to prove something. Less than a week later, the police stopped me about 100 kilometers outside of Tabriz, put my bike in their truck, and drove me to the bus station.

On the bus, a young mother and her daughter gifted me a bag of my favorite Iranian cheese puffs, the one with a cartoon monkey on the package. At her mother's encouragement, the little girl, dressed in pink and white with her hair pulled up in a little pink bow, sat next to me, asking me questions in Farsi. Her eyes searched mine for a sign of recognition, but I had no idea what she was saying. When we got off the bus in Tabriz, they waited for me as my bike was unloaded from the cargo. The mother gestured that I should go to their home with them.

At that moment I realized when I am on a bike alone in Iran, I am a freak of nature, a roadside attraction for people to snap photos of and talk to as they slow their cars (and nearly run me over). But when I am on a bus or on foot, I am more accessible and understandable to the locals.

I still carried on, slowly riding around the hills of the Azerbaijan region, from Tabriz to Sara'eyn to Ardabil. I decided to splurge and pamper myself by going to a "spa" with famous healing water that drew people in droves to Sara'eyn. Rather than a "spa experience," it was like swimming in a dirty public pool of sulfur water with hundreds of other women and girls -- each dressed, as I was, in a poorly fitted disposable bathing suit.

In Ardabil, I attended a zurkhaneh, which literally means "house of strength." Dating back to the pre-Islamic period, it's a combination of exercise and spiritual practice -- like yoga, except different. It resembles a cross between prayer, aerobics, wrestling, a whirling dervish rite, and weight training with archaic props like giant chains and bloated bowling ball pins, all accompanied by a man in a DJ booth playing a drum and singing old Iranian mythological songs.

My favorite part of the practice was when participants, old and young, fit and unfit, took turns spinning in circles as fast as they could until they eventually lost it and stumbled. After that, the most robust members hoisted a large, medieval-looking bar-and-chain contraption over their heads, shaking it around like bodybuilders of some bygone age. The older and less ambitious men took a rest with their buddies and drank tea. I joined them.

They told me about the central themes of the zurkhaneh: strength and being a warrior. They inquired what I was doing in Ardabil, and I told them about my botched bike ride. Their eyes grew big as my words were translated. One of the older gentlemen in a suit who had been leisurely watching the zurkhaneh interrupted. He announced that because I had rode there on a bicycle from Tehran I was a warrior. I confessed that I had many moments of weakness on my bike and that, technically, I did not ride all the way there. He swatted his hand and went off on how crazy the driving is in the Azerbaijan region. He said that a warrior knows when to stop and take it easy. He used himself as an example -- kicking back and drinking tea because he had already "mastered the zurkhaneh." In a way, I think that this was the same message that Bijan had tried to get across, but rather than a sledgehammer, this gentleman employed a gentle nudge.

The next day I put my bike into storage at a guesthouse and took a taxi to the bus station.

Michelle May is a San Francisco-based travel writer and blogs here.

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great piece! what an amazing journey and a view of iran i couldnt imagine!

rebecca / August 11, 2010 1:01 AM

Great journey - warriors do need to take it easy ever now and again.

Andrew / August 11, 2010 3:50 AM

Loved it, but I'm missing a picture of you and your bike! (And I think your bike helmet/headscarf should be gifted to the Smithsonian.)

Jeff Greenwald / August 24, 2010 6:03 AM