Religious fanaticism, sable-rattling Mullahs and a seemingly sealed off society: Iran remains a largely cryptic country. The oriental magic of the past is nowhere to be found. A trip to Tehran and its backcountry has confronted Andrew Neethling and Holger Meyer with reality: together with locals, the well-travelled pros explored the pearl of Persia’s single trails — and experienced not just the country’s top-notch trail network, but also the warmth of its inhabitants. Their perception of Iran was turned completely upside down.
My head pounds as the taxi driver merges into traffic while honking like a madman. The two bike bags in the back push against me from behind. It’s a miracle that they even made it into the yellow Saipa. We can’t believe Tehran’s rush-hour traffic with its 11 million inhabitants. Driving is a close call here. There are three lanes — but five seem to be in use. Having arrived at the hotel, we met Michel, our Swiss guide. He has planned our trip and created a very precise Swiss schedule for us. Andrew, Martin and I feel good about it. Michel’s plan sounds great: a few days in Tehran, then off to the mountains around Iran’s capital city, a detour into a skiing area, then up north to the Caspian Sea and finally into the desert- sounds good! Relaxed, we finish the last sip of our tea with sugar while sitting cross-legged, as Michael reveals that he has to leave the next day. Hassan, our local guide, will be taking over for him. Alright! Different folks, different strokes — we can’t wait.
It’s Friday. But in Iran, Friday is Sunday. Everyone has the day off. And it seems as if everyone is into cycling here. Well, at least all of those who own a bicycle. And I feel as if all of these mountain bikers can’t take their eyes off me and my tubeless tyres when they refuse to get back into their rims after our flight. I can’t really come up with anything when someone approaches me and asks: “Hello, how do you like Iran?” I feel the sweat dripping down my forehead as I pump air into the things like an idiot.
Then our guide Hassan shows up: around 1.70 metres tall, strong calves, sporty haircut. He’s an Iranian MTB national coach. Tanned by the Iranian sun, he tells us — in rather poor English — that he’s also a mechanic. He heads over to his Saipa — that’s an Iranian car maker — and returns with a 12V compressor- my savior! Meanwhile, we’re surrounded by around 40 men and women. Yes, there are female cyclists too. The women here ride wearing long clothes, as the state requires them to cover their heads and wear long dresses, while we tackle the summer temperatures with bike shorts.
Unfortunately, Hassan’s compressor can’t help either. Free rider Taja has spotted the problem and offers me two CO2 cartridges. Immediately, the two unruly rubber wheels jump back into the rims. We’re finally good to go. We make our way through Tehran’s city park at the city’s southern periphery. First on asphalt, then on gravel and then finally uphill on the single trail. Passing by the large military facilities, we slowly gain elevation, meter by meter. Hassan says, “Better no photos, please!” Otherwise, the military could arrest us on charges of espionage. We certainly wouldn’t want that. Our group starts drifting apart. Everyone here is very interested in our opinion of the country. Unfortunately, we can’t say a whole lot quite yet, having just landed. Other than the ground being sandy and dust-dry, whilst the traction is rather good, we’re still short on experience.
During our first rest, we get to enjoy the view. All around us we see plenty of barren hills with several trails and paths. There are desert landscapes as far as the eye can see; no green in sight. The route is a little irregular and unclear, now it’s suddenly steep. We pant toward the summit and — having arrived on top — can’t produce a single word, being so out of breath. The view is spectacular. From up here, you can see all of Tehran. Extending all the way to the horizon, the city looks like a giant carpet of a settlement that was placed across the valley, framed by the high mountains. And thus, we leave the city of 14 million behind us — luckily, no smog in sight today. “Very, very luck,” says Hassan. Normally the sky looks more brown than blue, our guide reveals in his broken English.
Up here, our group separates for good. Most of the riders take the easier route into the valley. Hassan recommends the trail route- a great suggestion. Just the right way to enjoy the many panoramas as the narrow trail, riddled with a few rock passages, gets steeper. The ground is hard and dusty, but offers excellent traction for the studs. The curves provide a great grip, whilst a few climbs here and there work wonders on the cardiovascular system. And thus, we continue on our path for the next hour or so before making our way back into the traffic chaos of the metropolis.
SHAH NOSTALGIA AND PURPLE SKI GONDOLAS
Dizin is a ski resort that was built in the 70s. Back then, the Shah was still in charge of Iran. The gondolas from the era look accordingly safe. Like little colorful Easter eggs, they hang off the wire. At least they’re painted in a contemporary purple, the chief himself even turns them on for us. Weightlessly, we glide over the 3,000-metre mark. Here in the Alborz mountain range, there are several summits that almost make it up to 4,000 meters. I immediately think of the incredible powder snow opportunities that must exist up here during winter: Wide descents as far as the eye can see. But are there any trails up here? Andrew and I connect to an old passage toward the valley. Trails? Nope. However, the word “road” does not mean in Iran what we mean when we say “road.” Rough gravel takes turns with skid-proof clay soil and makes us scream out in excitement in the fast curves. At this height, it’s starting to get really cold and when the sun disappears behind the mountain, we’re in dire need of something warm. Either down feathers, hot soup or a tea, ideally all of them together. “Ash” is the name of the national dish that is served at almost every corner, a large vegetarian pot of soup that cooks over an open flame. Hassan orders it for us. It tastes good and warms us up.
I wake up on an incredibly beautiful Persian carpet. My back may hurt, but the down feather sleeping bag was a good choice. At night, Iran’s mountains get very cold. Our accommodation is a house without beds, merely equipped with carpets. That’s normal here. Everyone simply sleeps on the floor — a different kind of dormitory experience! We fix ourselves a tea and go on our way. At 1,000 meters of elevation, we have to start hiking instead of biking. We want to have breakfast up high under the sun. We carry and push our bikes through a mystical forest. Wafts of mist slowly give way to the incoming sunrays.
The trees are thin but are covered in thick, green moss. Many of the leaves have already assumed their golden autumn colors. The further we torment ourselves upwards, the brighter the forest becomes. Hassan cycles ahead, Andrew and I follow suit. With the increasing height, the vegetation also changes, we pedal among large beech trees and through green leaves. Suddenly, it gets as green as we would never have expected it from Iran. Although the trail serpentines through the trees, we get to have a whole lot of fun fighting for the pole position, until suddenly two huge dogs block our way.
We look up and see two shepherds having breakfast in the warm sun. The dogs are theirs. A whistle from above and the dogs are tame. The mountain herdsmen have pitched their quarters here, just like we were planning on doing. As if it’s the most normal thing in the world, they invite us to join them for food and tea. Hassan translates: “Very friendly people.” Indeed! There is flatbread, fresh cheese, homemade honey and some vegetables.
We set forth for the summit, the dogs remain by our side as our companions. We cover the last few metres by climbing up the mountain. Up here, there are no more trees, it’s barren. There are a few huts at the foot of the summit. Having arrived on top, the wind whistles in our ears. A summit hut provides shelter — and a spectacular view of the 5,600-metre-high Mount Damavand. It’s the tallest mountain in the Orient and glimmers snow white in the midday sun. We’re excited about the descent. The first part requires a bit of skill, as it is riddled with blocked rock passages and several sharp bends, afterwards it begins to flow more and gets quite fast on the old sheep trails. There are countless opportunities to take over. Andrew doesn’t try to hide his history as a downhill World Cup rider and includes jumps wherever possible. His rear wheel turns this thing into a video game for me, as I constantly have to react to the rocks that suddenly appear in front of me. There’s even more fun later in the forest, where the leaves on the ground, having fallen victim to the autumn season, make track selection both difficult as well as slippery. Hassan had already announced it earlier, “Single track very beauty!” He didn’t oversell it. We enjoy the curves here in the forest, which we had to hike up earlier in the morning, for quite a while.
At night, we arrive at the Caspian Sea. On the beach, we meet Hassan’s biking friends. Being a national coach, he seems to know the whole country like the back of his hand — at least he knows where to find the best training spots. By the campfire, we discuss the schedule for the next day. Since the consumption of alcohol is strictly prohibited in Iran, we drink tea instead of beer again. The term “Caspian Sea” is actually deceptive; independently of that, we, of course have to check whether the world’s largest inland lake actually contains any salt. It’s not even that cold and considering the fact that the showering situation is not quite clear yet, it feels rather good. We dry ourselves by the fire.
Our trail highlight is set to take place the next day. Andrew and I get excited like children when Hassan’s buddies Mohammed, Mehed, Tehali and Behzad tell us their story — but maybe that’s just due to the tea. 16 kilometers of single downhill trail is on schedule — that’s reason enough to get excited, alright.
Hassan sleeps outside, but in the middle of the night, he joins us on the flying carpet. It had started raining. The next morning, none of us can believe our eyes- it’s raining buckets. For now, the dream trail will remain but a dream. Our schedule is tight, and so we decide to continue riding toward the desert to see our luck there.
Hassan’s downhill team riders Taheli and Behzad join us. Full of motivation, they want to show us their country from its best side. That, incidentally, is something all Iranians seem to be quite fond of, as they always have time for a quick chat. “Where are you from? Do you want tea? Bavaria, Munich? Borussia Dortmund? Götze? Selfie?” And always in that order.
On our way to the desert, we stop at a local downhill track. Wide, tree-free slopes make for a completely different mountain biking experience. Once again, we are as impressed by the trails as we are by the landscape. Hassan is extremely proud that we like it so much. To him, this strip of land is his personal “rampage track.” “Like Utah — don’t you think?”
In the desert city of Kashan, we encounter tourists for the first time. Prior to that, our visit seemed like a journey into another epoch- nothing but locals and authenticity in a completely remote land. Kashan is very historic, the palaces and old buildings are beautifully furnished, everything is kept in beige and brown colors. The inner city reminds me of the scenery in Star Wars. Andrew emerges from around the corner on his bike like Luke Skywalker from his space glider. Together, we explore the bazaar, haggle, and still can’t come to terms with the money and all the zeros. Then we come across the old city walls of Kashan on which hundreds of years of erosion have resulted in a kind of pump track. Andrew tries out a few jumps, but then we move on before the wall collapses.
The next few trails are once again near Tehran, where we do a few final rounds together with our new Iranian friends. Soon, it’s time to say goodbye to a country that couldn’t be more diverse and contradictory. The people here are incredibly open and think in very Western terms, quite differently from the picture we had of them and what one might expect based on media reports.
One thing is certain— Iran, we will be back.