6900 km done! Azerbaijan and Iran
After leaving Tbilisi, it only took me a couple of hours to hit the border of Azerbaijan. I’d decided on going for the most direct route to Iran. In hindsight, that might’ve not ben the best plan. It turned out to be a really boring route through nothing but flat fields and dirt desert. I’d gone for the most direct route though, as I’d gotten a deadline for China. Since then I’ve come up with a slightly different route, which means I won’t be in quite so much of a hurry, but more about that later. Though the landscape in Azerbaijan was somewhat boring, and the heat was brutal, I did get a few cool experiences out of my time there anyway. I visited the city of Ganja, which is the second largest city in Azerbaijan. It was a pretty odd experience. Every city in Azerbaijan has a park dedicated to one of the former leaders, and the park in Ganja was an absolutely massive complex of monuments and attractions. They even had an entire theme park. However, it was all completely empty. I was the practically the only visitor. It had a bit of an eerie feel to it. I met a couple of Italians in Ganja though, whom I had a great time with that evening. Cycling on from there, I was warned about poor road conditions by some of the locals. I’m often warned about bad roads, but most of the time they are really not that bad after all. This road though, was almost 50 km of relentless course gravel road. It took me most of the day battling my way through the road, as I could go much faster than 10 km/h. Often times I also had to get off and walk instead. Throughout Azerbaijan I was constantly stopped by people who wanted to take pictures with me. While on the gravel road, a guy on a horse even came galloping to catch up with me, just to get a selfie. By now, I must be on hundreds of random people’s phone galleries. In Azerbaijan, it actually ended up annoying me a bit as I would constantly be stopped whenever I was getting into a good rhythm. Sometimes people would wave try to wave me in, but if I then kept going they would get into their car, track me down, and stop the car right in front of me to get that selfie. The moment they’d then gotten the selfie, they would get back in their car and be off. Very little talking. It was pretty weird to me, but I just sort of went along with it most of the time. Before leaving Azerbaijan, I spent a day in the town of Lankaran. When I arrived in the evening, it seemed like a pretty dull place, but the morning after the entire place turned into a massive outdoor market. It was one of the busiest, most confusing markets I have ever been to, and I was constantly getting lost. It was a great experience though. It took me about one week to cycle through the plains of Azerbaijan.
I then entered Iran. Usually when crossing borders, I’m treated like a car. But at the Iranian border, I was put in line with all the pedestrians. It was by far the rowdiest border crossing I have ever been at. People were pushing each other so hard, jumping fences and screaming at each other. It was comparable to being in a giant mosh-pit at the main stage of a festival. I ended up standing at the very back, hopelessly staring at the chaos unfolding in front of me. After a while, one of the few workers came to me, and helped me carve a way through the madness. I ended up being one of the first people to go through the border that day! As I was let through, I was approached by couple of guys offering to exchange my money. Because of sanctions, foreign credit cards cannot be used in Iran, so everything is paid in cash. The exchange rate is pretty hard to get your head around though. I had brought Euros to exchange to Rials. The guys asked me too Google the exchange rate for them, and so I did. They exchanged my money to the exact rate with no commissions. It was a bit strange, but I didn’t put much in it. After a while, I realize that the official exchange rate is totally off compared to the real exchange rate. I was given 48,500 Rials for 1 Euro at the border. Since then I’ve exchanged money for 115,000 Rials for 1 Euro. Since the actual rate is so far off the official rate at the moment, everything is mind-blowingly cheap. When travelling in Iran, money is generally not a problem. But since everyone is running around with millions in cash, it often gets confusing when asking about prices. People can’t be bothered to give you the entire number of what you have to pay in Rial, so instead, they might simply tell you 500. You eventually get a feel for it, but on your first couple of days in Iran, it’s actually really hard to figure out what 500 means. It could be hundreds, thousands, or even hundreds of thousands.
As a blonde cyclist in Iran, you are quite obviously not local. A lot of people in the country-side have a hard time understanding that you don’t actually speak Farsi though, so the language barrier is often pretty extreme. You do, however, attract English-teachers. After a week in Iran, I’ve met about 5 English-teachers, all very eager to speak with me. On my very first night I was even taken in by Asgar, an awesome teacher, for the night. He invited me to stay for as long as I wanted and would’ve then brought me to speak with all his students. I’ve got limited time in Iran though, so I only ended up staying one night. Iranian hospitality and helpfulness are in a league of its own though, and I feel completely safe anywhere I go. They’ve got the same curiosity and urge to take selfies as the people in Azerbaijan, difference being that they really seemed to care about your well-being at the same time. People often stop to give you water and fruits, and at least just to check whether you’ve got what you need. Cycling in to Tehran was really intense, on par with the challenge of Istanbul albeit a bit shorter.
Yesterday I went on a quest to apply for my Turkmenistan visa. The Turkmens are known to be quite strict when it comes to visas and traveling within their country. A guy had been denied his visa because he had a beard, which he did not have in his passport. So before going to the Embassy of Turkmenistan, I rocked up at the Danish embassy to get a letter stating that my passport was indeed legitimate. I went in and told them about my trip and what I needed, and they all seemed to be pretty astounded. The two interns, Emil and Andreas, came out to speak with me, helped me out with money exchanging, and eventually invited me to dinner that evening. Legends! We went to a really nice restaurant in the high-class part of Tehran, and I felt absolutely spoiled as we munched over 7 different dishes. Just speaking with a couple of Danish strangers was really nice, and hearing about their lives at the embassy was super cool and interesting.
At the moment, I am seriously considering a slightly different route to what I had planned from the start. The countries will be the same, but I will have a shorter distance to China, meaning I can take my time to explore Central Asia. I have decided that I will in fact be going to Tajikistan. I’ll be sticking to the northern route, as opposed to the Pamir Highway. The attacks that a lot of you have heard and warned me about have all happened on the Pamir Highway. The highway runs a long the border with Afghanistan, and since the security of Afghanistan is deteriorating, so is the border areas in Tajikistan. So, even though the Pamir Highway is supposedly on of the best roads in the world for cycle-touring, I will be avoiding it. If everything goes according to plan, I will be entering Uzbekistan from Turkmenistan on the 23rd of September. From there I will go to Samarkand before cycling towards Dushanbe in Tajikistan. The route then takes me along the north of the country, in to a bit of Kyrgyzstan before hitting the border with China. This way, I will have shaved off 600 km of the way to China. The shaved off kilometers will then be made up for after China in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. I then plan on flying from Almaty to New Delhi to continue cycling from there. I’ve come to this route after prolonged discussions with several other cycle-tourers, and everything considered, I don’t think it is a particularly risky route, despite the recent attacks in southern Tajikistan.
Like always, I’m cycling for The Association for Greenlandic Children. Please do click on the link below to read more about the cause and my motivation for supporting. The fundraising aspect of this entire project is a massive motivational factor for me, so please do consider donating to the cause, spreading the word, or both. Everything helps! Thank you to everyone who have supported the cause so far!