Traveling around the world is one of those things that most people dream of doing at least once in their lifetime. Some get on a plane, some opt to travel by train, and a select few go by sea.
However, Swinde Wiederhold and Nedo Gubser chose to ride their bikes across the planet, and visiting Iran was a must.
Swinde, a 29-year-old German photojournalism student, said coming to Iran was not initially a priority for her.
“In my first semester at university I had to do a reportage on a fellow classmate, and I decided to do one on Shirin (Iranian classmate),” she said. “She took me to see her family in Germany and I felt so welcomed — in Germany!”
She was invited to visit Iran the following summer by Shirin’s parents, to which she replied ‘But there are no mountains in Iran to climb!’
“Her father laughed and said ‘of course there are!'” she recalled fondly.
So she took up the offer and traveled to Iran in 2015. Six weeks into her trip she decided to ask Nedo, her Swiss friend living in Denmark, to come join her, which he accepted.
“We were in Iran when we decided to come back here on our bikes,” said Nedo, 36, a geography teacher. “And also, that’s when we decided to become a couple—here in Iran.”
— Nothing Like What the Media Says
It was only an idea at first, but they were already committed and had a detailed plan ready two months before they set off on their journey on February 16 from the tiny Swiss village of Oberterzen, where Nedo’s parents live.
“There was a farewell party with 50-60 people,” he said.
I asked them if they were warned against traveling to Iran, to which they both said, “The first time, yes.”
So what made them stand their ground?
“You read a blog post from time to time from travelers who’ve been to Iran who say amazing things about it, which is in total contrast to what you see in the media and hear from people back home,” Nedo said.
They cycled through Central Europe and the Eastern Bloc to Turkey, where they had to wait to get their Iranian visa.
“It was easy, it only took 7 days,” Nedo said.
The couple entered Iran via Bazargan Border Crossing in East Azarbaijan Province and rode their bikes to Maku, Poldasht, Jolfa and Tabriz before stopping at Mount Sabalan to climb Iran’s second tallest peak.
“There was so much snow that it made climbing difficult,” Swinde said.
They continued their journey west through Ardabil, Astara, Ton-e-kabon and Chalous —riding along the Caspian Sea in northern Iran — before making their way south to Karaj and finally Tehran.
To my disbelief, they both said the road conditions in Iran “are great in comparison to most countries [we] have been cycled through”.
“Roadsides facilities are everywhere,” Nedo added.
As difficult as it was for me to believe it, I felt like I had to since they’re both experienced cyclists, particularly Swinde, who at the young age of 24 cycled her way across the Americas, starting from Chile and traveling all the way to Alaska.
— Not for the Rookie Rider
So far it seemed like their trip was a straightforward journey without any major issues but I went ahead and asked them if they had any advice for people thinking about cycling through Iran.
“I wouldn’t recommend Iran to someone who hasn’t been on several bike tours before,” Nedo said.
“Trucks overtake you on the road and you need to know how to handle your bike, especially when traveling with 30 kilos of luggage!” he continued. “Cycling through Iran should not be your first trip, maybe fifth.”
Other than that, though, they were very happy with their time in Iran:
“It’s one of the safest countries we’ve cycled through” Swinde said, but she had a little grievance she had to get off her chest.
“When I’m with Nedo, men only talk to him and don’t even look my way,” she said. A common complaint that’s not limited to foreign women. In rural area and small towns, where most people are religious, they try to avoid eye contact with the opposite sex.
“It feels like I’m being ignored. I know they don’t mean it that way, but it’s still strange.”
— Traveling Light
Iran’s reputation for hospitality is common knowledge, but experiencing it first hand is something else.
“Traveling around Iran is easy because you get invited in people’s homes all the time,” Swinde said. “Unless you’re traveling in the desert areas you can travel light, there’s no need for a camping stove or tent.”
Nedo agreed, adding that they were surprised by the decent level of English spoken in far-flung villages compared to other countries.
“In many villages there are people who speak a few words of English, unlike many other places such as eastern Turkey where there’s absolutely nobody in rural areas that speaks English.”
“Even in those places where nobody speaks English, you still get invited to people’s homes.”
Of course, when an Iranian invites you to their home, expect to feast like a king.
“I eat a lot, but the portions here are too big even for me!” Nedo exclaimed.
It’s not just that the portions are big, Iranian dishes are generally very filling.
“I like Iranian food, but when I eat something like Ghormeh Sabzi, I really can’t eat anything else,” Nedo said.
The couple are now in Turkmenistan and are cycling their way to Bangladesh, where Swinde will be studying for a semester.
She is documenting their trip online at www.swinde.de. You can also follow her on Instagram @swindephotography.
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