I spent a couple of days ostensibly riding out the weather in Meghri but really immobilised by the prospect of leaving for the unknown of Iran. In my haste to arrive at the border before my visa window elapsed I had done so with a week to spare and I found it surprisingly difficult to leave.
Despite falling ill I felt very affectionate towards Armenia. Apricot jam, excellent inexpensive brandy and sensational doors were now my status quo. A land of harsh mountains, proud of its Christian heritage but perfectly relaxed about all shops staying open late on Sundays; where an overturned cup of coffee can predict whether you would find love. (I would not apparently, so the system checks out.) Even the overwhelmingly high proportion of white vehicles compared to other colors now seemed perfectly normal.
Fortunately a serendipitous kick up the arse arrived in the form of Javi the Spanish cycle tourer who I had first met outside Istanbul, then again in Cappadocia. I bumped in to him as I mooched around the internet cafe and went into full host mode ushering him and his new companion (Carlos, another Spanish cyclist) to a weather proof (and free) ruined church which I had scoped out as I explored the edge of town earlier that day.
It had seen better days but they seemed happy enough with my economical suggestion
The next morning we headed as a peleton for the border marked by the river Aras.
A first glimpse of Iran
The first (but certainly not the last) glimpse of Messers. Khamenei and Khomeini
The border crossing was straightforward if not quick. Unlike my Spanish compadres I as an Englishmen was required to give over some finger prints (a reciprocal measure after the British Government introduced this requirement for Iranian visitors to the UK) and answer a couple of routine questions; the atmosphere was friendly with the officer intrigued by my bike ride and cracking jokes.
Compare and contrast with the security theater at UK Border Control.
As I emerged it turned out that the Spanish pair had enjoyed an inauspicious start with two punctures so I whiled away the time chatting and smoking with the friendly Iranian taxi drivers.
It was gorgeous and the road all but deserted while across the river to the north we could gawp at the mountain slopes of the Azerbaijani controlled Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic.
A glance back made it feel like we were leaving behind the sharp mountains of the Caucasus for a new land. Persia. Hooray for geographically sensible borders!
Late afternoon I said goodbye to my companions as they continued on to Jolfa in search of some spare parts and I took a 'short cut' up into the foothills of the Azarbayjan-e mountains with Kiyamaki Dagh towering.
The road was harder than I had anticipated and after turning down some promising camping spots early on in my detour I became a little concerned as the countryside became increasingly broken and unpromising with rock strewn hills rolling in all directions as the sky darkened.
I pulled over to take stock and had just resolved to ride into the small village on the horizon and ask if I could put my tent somewhere when I spied a brick structure someway off to my left over the cracked ground. On closer investigation it turned out to be a square of cleared ground to keep goats or sheep overnight and safe from wolves. Unfortunatley the fresh dung and the ready prepared fire wood next to the shepherds small corner lean-to led me to conclude it would be in use that night.
Discouraged I went back to the road but after another kilometer I spotted yet another shepherds stone square. If the definition of insanity is trying the same thing and expecting different results I wasn't in my right mind as I decided to push my bike out and investigate again despite the hastening gloom.
No recent droppings on the floor, no firewood and the clincher - no gate on the entry to the square. It was enough for me to take the risk and settle in for the evening hopeful of not being disturbed nor of getting in the way of the local herdsmen.
Thoroughly pleased with both my spot and the views I bedded down to enjoy the last lingering rays of light before a fridgid night set in.
Illuminating a framed mount Llandag back across the border.
It was only in the light of the morning that I was able to examine in unnerving detail the iffy construction method
A good weight of stones suspended above my head by nothing more than some strategically placed branches.
The mornings cycling was good as I continued along the quiet back-road before being rewarded by a long downhill into the bustling town of Hadi-Shahr. Here I rejoined the main road towards Tabriz and had my first brush with local law enforcement.
I'd only been cycling along the highways hard shoulder for a few minutes when I reached a police checkpoint and was beckoned over.
As it happened all the friendly officers wanted was to offer me a cup of tea and welcome me to Iran. On hearing that I was cycling to Tabriz they insisted on pulling over the next truck and persuading him to give me a lift up the next hill (and 70k onwards) to the city of Marand.
Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth I loaded the bike and jumped in. Chatting away in broken English I learnt that my driver was an Iranian heavyweight boxer.
At well over 6'6 I very politely accepted when he offered me some odd looking seed/grain thingy which he called tout-tout.
I'm glad I did because it turned out to be absolutely delicious; tasting just like chewy caramel. They immedietly became the go to energy snack for the rest of my time in Iran.
Now within touching distance of Tabriz I got my head down and made it into the city just before nightfall and was pleasantly suprised to find the city-entrance cycling much less stressful than I had imagined.
I presented myself at the cheapest guesthouse mentioned in the lonely planet.
The next day was spent out on the beat doing typical touristy stuff: visit a museum (this one filled with glorious archeological finds from the region with exhibitions dating back two, three and even four thousand years.) have a cup of tea in the main square and generally get a bit turned around.
Having tired of being a lost sheep I tracked down the tourist information centre run by a helpful polyglot by the name of Nasser Khan who suggested I visit the Blue Mosque.
Originally built in 1465 it was the glory of its age and covering its surface with majolica tiles and intricate calligraphy is said to have taken a quarter of a century. Alas it was all but destroyed in an earthquake in 1773.
The remaining pile of rubble lay mostly undisturbed until 1951 restoring the structure itself has only recently neared completion.
Around the entrance teasing hints of its original majesty can be seen
The interior is similarly disheveled and probably isn't worth the entrance fee unless you have a greater knowledge and interest in architecture than I.
But you are able to get at least a feeling of what the impact of all that blue must once have been.
I decided to then to seek out the mighty Mehran river which runs through the heart of Tabriz and stroll along her banks.
Much to my disappointment the waterway has been tamed and shackled presumably for use in irrigation elsewhere and to prevent flooding leaving the barest trickle.
I honestly hadn't fallen in love with Tabriz. My imagination had perhaps run away picturing an atmospheric, deeply historical city once the capital of Persia and which had been a crucial link in the silk road. What I found was a busy, low-rise example of modern concrete urbanity albeit enlivened by Iranian motorcyclist penchant for riding on the pavements.
But the people were friendly and one in particular took it upon himself to show me another side of Tabriz.
Yousef a retired English teacher and I got chatting in the travel agency as I looked to oragnise a train to Tehran and we continued our conversation over an omelette at a local cafe
Yousef centre at the very back would go on to add me on facebook (despite it being banned in Iran) and chat concernedly with my mum about my whereabouts once I left Tabriz.
He then kindly gave me a tour around the truly huge Bazaar. A UNESCO World Heritage site some claim it to be the largest covered market in the world. Whether that's true is entirely beside the point as getting lost in its cavernous alleyways was an utter delight. One moment you are surrounded by glowing copper pots and pans and then suddenly the smell of every conceivable spice over powers you and hessian sacks filled to overflowing the cardamon, cinnamon, nutmeg and of course saffron are crowding the narrow walkway. Whole shop fronts devoted to ropes of every colour and of course the two most important quarters: Carpets and gold.
I enjoyed a very pleasant few hours window shopping; a statement I never expected myself to make. Perhaps the fact that there was nothing I could afford or carry on the bike made the whole experience less stressful.
That said my mode of transport didn't stop a particularly zealous group of carpet salesmen plying me with tea and politely inquiring about my trip while trying to offer me ever smaller carpets for a good 30 minutes.
Despite the triumph that is Tabriz's bazaar and it's friendly Azeri population I was ready to move on from Tabriz after my two days and as the cold weather began to deepen (it would be -15 within 3 weeks) me and the bike pulled away on a train bound for Tehran