An aged lady, her craggy face peering out from the folds of her voluminous black chador, calls for my consideration.
I am within the immigration line on the Turkey-Iran border and my coronary heart is pounding as I wait to be stamped into the Islamic Republic.
I nod warily, confirming that sure, that’s me — a solo feminine with a British passport and a motorbike.
I alter my headband, fearing that my interrogator is a member of Iran’s notorious “morality police,” the hardliners instructed to arrest ladies for “conceited” conduct.
She jabs me within the chest.
“You include moto?” she asks once more, twisting an imaginary throttle and even including a number of “vroom vroom” sound results.
I am nonetheless undecided if I am in hassle however her opinion turns into clear when she grabs my face and offers it an enthusiastic slap, earlier than pulling me in for a rib-crushing hug.
“Superb! Superb!” she shouts whereas I gasp for breath among the many folds of her chador.
“I’m wishing you all of the luck on the earth!”
Discovering the ‘actual’ Iran
This enthusiastic welcome units the scene for my whole journey — motorcycling three,000 miles round Iran solo and feminine, from the rugged northwest of the nation to the Caspian Sea and over the distant Alborz Mountains to the fume-choked streets of Tehran.
Curiosity in regards to the big gulf between how Iran is perceived within the West and what I hear about it from the few individuals I do know who’ve been there.
Usually painted within the media as a terrifying place filled with extremists, vacationers who return from Iran invariably rave about how fantastic and welcoming they discovered the Iranian individuals.
I needed to find the place for myself.
Following some wild instances within the capital, the place it seems you will get every part from contraband bacon to booze, I proceed via the peaceable Zagros Mountains to the traditional cities of Esfehan, Shiraz and the deserts of the south.
Reviews of vacationers being arrested for espionage are within the entrance of my thoughts when, at one border submit, I am frogmarched to the police station to be fingerprinted.
However, in fact, a individuals and its authorities are two separate entities.
Persian hospitality is famous and I discover myself overwhelmed with generosity and kindness from Iranians eager to distance themselves from the destructive picture of their homeland — from truckers stuffing pomegranates into my panniers to finish strangers insisting on paying for my resort room and an limitless stream of tea.
In fact, there are a few difficult moments, most frequently involving the police.
There are totally different sorts of police in Iran and on one event in Tehran a automotive filled with plainclothes revolutionary guards intentionally drives into me.
On one other event I am assaulted at a distant desert fuel station by a pump attendant who might be on meth (fairly frequent within the rural areas, I am informed).
Shouting, he lunges at me.
Fortunately I am nonetheless sitting on the bike, and after a kick in the suitable place I trip off as quick as potential.
However then I am out within the desert with little or no gasoline … a fairly scary situation, too.
In actual fact, the very act of using a motorbike will be daunting in Iran because the driving will be insane.
Iran reportedly has the very best charge of street deaths and visitors associated accidents on the earth, so each morning I really feel like I am going into battle.
However the welcome from the individuals makes up for it manifold.
Curious and curiouser
I am additionally a supply of intense curiosity myself, particularly as Iranian ladies are forbidden from using bikes in public.
Overseas vacationers are uncommon in Iran and the sight of a UK-registered motorbike brought about a lot pleasure amongst drivers who would move me with an inch to spare, blasting their horns whereas hanging out the window and filming me on their telephones.
As I journey round I am handed from stranger to stranger, who shortly turn out to be buddies, and consequently, discover myself mingling with a spread of Iranian society.
My hosts vary from underground filmmakers and the designer-clad elite of Tehran to a rebel-rousing schoolgirl and Iran’s celebrated explorer, Issa Omidvar, who motorcycled around the globe within the 1950s.
Iranians stay heat and fun-loving individuals.
Some areas off limits
Using is not a completely free affair although — vacationers should take care to not stray into army areas or close to nuclear crops and taking footage of army or official buildings is a no-no.
For my challenge, I would snap them shortly after which be on my method, reminded that the authoritarian streak isn’t far-off.
Huge murals of the Supreme Chief (Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei) loom over each avenue nook and everybody I meet has a narrative of police intimidation, arrests and the oppressive actuality of life below the regime.
Within the desert metropolis of Yazd I am invited to stick with an ex-army basic and his household.
He fought within the Iran-Iraq warfare of the 1980s and misplaced his legs within the battle.
I am cautious of this invitation, questioning what I will have in frequent with an Iranian veteran, however my considerations are unfounded.
He is removed from the grizzled war-monger I concern and inside moments of assembly he is cracking jokes and educating me Farsi slang.
The spotlight of the journey comes, unexpectedly, as we take the elevator in his condominium block to exit for dinner.
I am studying the Persian numbers as we descend every flooring and as we depend “three, two, one” he proclaims in English, “It is the ultimate countdown!”
We do not have to say something. The 2 of us have a look at one another, chuckle and burst into music.
“Da-da daa daa, da-da da da daa!”
That is the second I do know I would been proper to disregard the naysayers and to return and search out the actual Iran.
Neither East nor West
Iran has all the time prided itself on being “neither East nor West.”
Geographically it stands between the 2 cultures, by no means aligning itself with both, making for the robust sense of Persian id.
Sadly, the favored picture of Iran immediately, fueled by the rhetoric of politicians implies that the Iranian persons are lumped in with Islamic extremists and terrorism.
This could not be farther from the reality.
My travels unveiled a nation of subtle, kindhearted individuals keen to have interaction with the broader world.
If solely their authorities would comply with their instance.