Iran: The Forbidden Country Through a Woman Rider’s Eyes
Bring a woman into Iran? You must be crazy!” That was the reaction my boyfriend and I received from two Germans in full leathers on Yamahas at the border station. Frustrated and complaining, the pair was leaving the country after only three days, curtailing a planned two-week vacation. Two months earlier, George and I had left Lucca, Italy, with a final destination of Sydney, Australia; he riding a Honda Africa Twin and myself on a TransAlp. I’m Italian, he is American. We had traveled through Eastern Europe, Turkey and Syria before crossing into Iran at the border town of Gurbolak.
As the days passed Iran unveiled itself as a most unique experience, far from the troublesome place the two Germans described. It is a country of strong contradictions and an intrusive religion, certainly, but the people are friendly and very hospitable, the ancient citadels and colorful mosques are stupendous and the landscapes are amazing.
From the border we rode through Azerbaijan toward the capital, Teheran, where we had arranged to rendezvous with a couple we met in Istanbul, who were traveling to India in a Land Rover. For security reasons we had decided to cross the desert together, caravan style.
On the main roads, which connect the industrial and residential areas in the north, the traffic is infernal. Complete disregard for traffic regulations is the norm, and larger vehicles never yield. And for an Italian, accustomed to somewhat hair-raising driving techniques, to determine that a particular traffic situation is dangerous, it must really be dangerous. A motorcycle in the Iranian hierarchy of transportation occupies the cellar along with bicycles and humans. The largest, the most powerful, the most reckless have precedence. Even though the TransAlp handles exceedingly well it is still a heavy bike (even without baggage) and big for many riders, never mind a 5-foot, 3-inch, 110-pound woman who could only touch the ground with the tip of a foot. In the sections of stop-and-go traffic it was difficult to stay upright between the shoves of bicycles and scooters, and cars occasionally sideswiped the side bags.
I tried to maintain a low profile since I was on their turf, and as a woman I was not sure what was permissible, but when I wore my helmet I claimed my right as a motorcyclist to defend my life: I honked the horn, I yelled, I pointed at people. George and I worked as a team—I rode in front, he rode behind, checking what these lunatic drivers were doing behind him, occasionally blocking cars to prevent them from passing us in the blind curves.
Before our visit women were not allowed to ride motorbikes. Then a clever Iranian company (the Kawasaki importer) pointed out that the Koran allows women to ride horseback. From that moment thousands of women started to take riding lessons, though we did not see any on motorbikes.
Both men and women must dress conservatively. Short sleeves and short pants are not allowed. Women must wear the hidjab, the black chador or a simple scarf over the head, it’s up to you. When I got off the bike I took off my helmet with one hand and simultaneously put the scarf on with the other. My technique appeared somewhat hilarious, but my respect for the rules was appreciated.
Iranian women are somewhat more free and better educated then in other Muslim countries, such as Syria, where few women can be out in public without being accompanied by men. In Iran there are female doctors and bus drivers and women are in the work place. To be a female motorcyclist is seen as amusing—it captures the attention of people and stirs the admiration of other women, who smile and wave, or blow kisses from the windows of cars. Some came a little too close, in fact, but only to stop and give us fruit or a present.
All were curious to know where we came from, what brought us to Iran and how we liked their country. A few times men shook my hand as a sign of respect and welcome, proud in front of friends that they understood Western customs—this is simply not permissible with Iranian women.
Teheran is chaotic, polluted. Boulevards and squares are adorned with flowers and statues, and there are many parks and gardens, but the air is stifling and the traffic jammed. Water runs in streams along the sides of the streets, bringing open sewage into the drains, which frequently overflow. The Holy War propaganda covers entire buildings—Khomeini’s intrusive face exalts the revolution, with columns of tanks advancing among the rubble as the martyrs ascend to the heavens. The American Embassy has been closed since 1979 and converted into Iranian military barracks. It is not permitted to take pictures. On the perimeter walls paintings of the Statue of Liberty are covered with blood, the Stars and Stripes are dropping bombs.
Yet the same U.S. flags are sold in the local bazaar. Although demonized by the Government, America is admired by many young students who speak English and surf the Net. The United States is seen as modern, free and wealthy. One young Iranian told us openly: “I have had enough of all this crap. During the Shah’s reign at least we lived better!” He likes rock music, forbidden until a few years ago, and watching the stars with his telescope. In the central streets the young generation dresses casually. The females wear tight jeans underneath the long robes, and colorful scarves instead of the traditional chador, with heavy makeup as a sign of rebellion. They innocently flirt with boys and meet in local fast food restaurants, preferring a hamburger to the traditional kebab. McDonald’s, if allowed, would make a killing here.
We traveled south in a convoy. Outside the big city the atmosphere changes. Low houses made of pressed mud replace the concrete, and the head scarves return to black. But human nature is a constant—people are people and in general the Iranians are extremely friendly. On Friday, their day of rest, there are picnics everywhere—in the countryside, in the parks and even in small gardens along the streets. We are astonished by how easy it is to communicate, even if nobody can speak more than a few words of English. Walking or riding we were invited for lunch by every family we passed and spent the whole day chatting and eating homemade food. Chelo-kebab is the traditional meal, composed of boiled rice and a minced meat kebab (mutton or mixed meat). Selling and consuming alcohol is forbidden.
The landscape varies from mountains to green countryside to desert. Leaving the main highways and taking the small roads which seem to lead nowhere, we traveled for days without meeting anyone except camels, only to discover a small shepherds’ village after 250 kilometers. Even on the rougher roads the TransAlp proved a good choice. It handled well, and the upright riding position allowed good maneuverability, with suspension that is a good compromise between a road bike and off-road. The tires (Michelin T66), more highway oriented then dirt, held the road well.
Esfahan, situated on the Silk Route, is one of the most impressive examples of ancient Persian architecture. Its huge Imam Khomeini square is second in size only to Tiananmen Square in Beijing. In the past it contained a polo field—today there’s a fabulous garden with a fountain and marble pathways. The blue and golden domes of two mosques and the wooden balcony of the ancient Aligapoo’s Palace overlook the scene. Antique covered bridges on the Zaiandé River have been transformed into picturesque tea houses, where it is possible to escape the heat playing backgammon and smoking water pipes. Local Iranian tourists are numerous here, and we were frequently approached by young students interested in practicing their English and asking my feelings about wearing a head scarf.
From Esfahan we left the paved road to reach Yazd, then Persepolis and Shiraz. Before leaving we checked our reserves of water and gasoline. Water can be more difficult to find than gas and more expensive. We were facing days of hot desert, sand and dusty roads, and breezy nights under millions of stars. Yazd is a rich oasis on the border between the Dasht-è Kavir (Grand Salted Desert) in the north, and the Dasht-è Lut (Grand Sand Desert) in the south. Built of bricks and pressed mud, it is famous for its chimneys, which convey fresh air inside the houses—an ancient air conditioning system.
The wooden doors have two knockers that produce different sounds, one for male and one for female, so that women inside know in advance if they need to cover their heads before welcoming guests. Among the privacy of the family they are not obliged to wear the scarf or long-sleeve dresses.
Shiraz is Iran’s poet city. The mausoleums of legendary poets Hafez and Saadi are a popular destination, and at sunset you can listen to poetry competitions. On the road to Zahedan on the Pakistani border we stopped for a night in Bam, known for its famous citadel. This luxuriant oasis of date palms was one of the richest in Iran until the Afghani invasion of 1722, when its decline began. Today the citadel and the city lies in ruins, the victim of an earthquake last December that killed more than 41,000 people.
With the temperature rising to as high as 118 degrees F, we got up early in the morning to avoid riding during midday, and drank lots and lots of water. We were getting prepared, physically and psychologically, to deal with eastern Iran and the desert. Facing Iranian roads with my TransAlp had been a great experience, but dealing with a 118-degree desert would be quite another. And yet we rode, stopping every 70 kilometers to drink water. At a police control point George enters their shack dazed from the heat. Without asking permission he lays down on one of their cots and falls immediately to sleep. The intense heat has varying effects on all of us—George sleeps, I get headaches, so I soak my scarf in water and put it under my helmet for a bit of refreshment. The Land Rover lacks air conditioning, but our friends are protected from the sun by its roof and therefore suffer less.
As we neared the Pakistani border after one month in Iran, visions of angry Taliban and endless desert dominated our thoughts. We treasure our experiences in Iran, but it is certainly not for everyone.
(This article about travel in Iran was published in the May 2004 issue of Rider magazine.)