Every journey is unique and challenging. Sometimes the challenges are physical—a bad road, a water crossing—and other times they are cultural, where you’re forced to leave stereotypes at the door and keep your wits about you. Experiencing the differences that separate us is what makes travel so rewarding, so intoxicating. Iran offers such landscapes.
“What? This is no good! You must send this one home!” exclaims the thickset, unshaven café owner sitting opposite me, pointing directly to Lisa. “I get you two well-behaved Iranian girls at 24 each and they make the same age of your wife. You marry them both, this is better. Yes?” He punctuates his words with a resounding thump of his chubby fist on the tin table, sending cutlery flying.
I had, moments earlier, naively mentioned that Lisa is eight years my senior.
A metal furnace belts out heat as we slowly thaw. It took us three hours of bitter-cold riding to descend from the mountainous Howden border of Turkmenistan along the Kopet Dag pass and down to the lowlands of northern Iran. We are southeast-bound en route to Mashhad, a major oasis on the ancient Silk Road and a destination for pilgrims for centuries. With thanks for the food and the conversation, we soon kick up the sidestands, although Lisa struggles to put on her helmet and riding gear over the Muslim-style head covering and long black dress she must wear while here.
The pitted tar we’d ridden from the border is now silky-smooth asphalt. The coffee-colored mountains of earlier have gone, replaced with a flat, dry, dusty vista. Dusk is setting quickly as we approach the outskirts of Mashhad, one of the holiest cities in the Shia Muslim world. In the dim light, we battle swarms of mopeds and fast-moving traffic and struggle to see through the dust-filled air. Past glittering mosques and tightly packed urban streets, our GPS guides us into a small, dead-end alley. A painted sign reads, “Vali’s Non-smoking Guesthouse.” Vali swings open old metal doors and flashes us a wicked smile as we drive both bikes into the tiny guesthouse’s basement. The basement serves as a small dormitory, and Lisa and I smile at the idea of parking the bikes next to our beds. Realization hits home as we wearily wash the day’s dust from our faces: We’re really here . . . we’re in the Islamic Republic of Iran.