The four agricultural scientists - Unfinished Business - CycleBlaze

The four agricultural scientists

The questions continued: "why do you ride a bicycle".  "That's an interesting one", I thought; it's one that I think about every day.  Judging from the smile on his face my interpreter, whose name I still did not know, clearly liked my answer as he rattled it off to the chief behind the desk.  I said there were several reasons.  First, it is a great physical and mental challenge.  Second, bicycles travel at an almost perfect speed.  While walking along a road tends to be too slow, travel by car tends to be too fast – you lose the detail.  There is also the act of defiance – cars are taking over the World and destroying it.  Bicycles are harmless; the most beautiful form of transport ever invented.  Do you ride a bicycle?  By this stage it was clear that the chief wanted a way out of this farce.  Perhaps he should talk to his lackeys and tell them that foreigners and foreign languages are not necessarily a threat to national security.

It had been a good morning.  I camped in a splendid spot last night – an old orchard near a creek in a twisting valley.  I had stopped the day before because I saw a couple of photographers capturing the image of a gnarly old tree and thought I would talk to them.  One thing led to another and before I knew it I had a copy of one of Davood Vakilsadeh's books.  This is Iran and Iranians, among the most generous people one could ever hope to meet.  I had my usual breakfast: a stack of dried fruit and nuts topped with a kilo of full-fat yoghurt, washed down with tea.  I then packed the last things and pushed to the road, past the twisted old tree.  As usual I turned the pedals easily for the first km or so and then built up speed.  Everything seemed remarkably easy this morning.  I could not detect any wind and even though the creek was descending, indicating that I was traveling downhill, I was still at a loss to explain my 28 km per hour.  It had to end and my speed had to trickle back to the typical 20-22 kmh.  But it didn't.  It was as though the big guy, Allah, or the smaller bloke, Mohammad, were down on my cranks rewarding my endeavours, saying good on you for yesterday's resilience outside Tabriz.  I powered on through the glorious valley, spoiled somewhat by garbage in the creek bed, stopping only for the occasional photograph – poppies, a dead badger, flowering orchards.  After 70 km, at an average speed of 26.2 kmh, made easier by a series of tunnels, the valley finally ended and ejected me into the squalor of outer Miyaneh, guarded by the Ferris wheel on the hill.  What a difference a day makes: yesterday after three and a half hours I had barely 50 km to my name and had fought for most of them. 

I was very hungry and the first requirement was for something like baklava, which seemed to be rare in Iran.  I spotted a sweet shop and thought that would do and as I was finding a spot to lean my bike I met a school teacher and mountaineer and a chemist.  Our conversation ended abruptly when an old woman went into a rage, perhaps due to my bike shorts (I had not washed them for a couple of days!).  My friends apologized and ushered me into the shop and bought me cakes and tea.  As I walked down the street in search of the internet and a pen I could not help but notice the number of trendy women pushing the dress code to its limit. No hysteria from them.  As I walked a fellow approached speaking rather good English, asked the usual questions and offered the internet in his shop.  I declined because I prefer to pay for things and feel more privacy in a steamy little cubicle in a cafenet so the fellow offered to take me to one.  As we continued up the main street there was suddenly the call "visa".  My friend told me that the uniformed officer wanted to see my visa.  I said fine but it will take a minute or two because it's concealed in a rather clever place.  At this point the officer, rather pleased with his detective work, decided that we would go to the police station. 

So off we trooped for a couple of hundred metres to the “shop”, where I leaned my bike and started unpacking a pannier.  With passport in hand an officer ushered me past the armed guards and into a room with a big cheese with whom I shook hands and gave my passport.  It was all very confusing because we then went into the adjoining room where, I guess, an even bigger cheese started the questioning with "when did you arrive in Iran?"  My first thought was "why don't you get my passport from the gopher next door and look at the stamp on my visa".  Instead, I thought for a moment and remembered getting a sleazy hotel room in Maku so that I could watch Barcelona teach Man U a lesson in the Champions League Final.  That was a Saturday, just four days ago, but over 400 km back.  "The 28th of May", I replied.  "What is your job?"  "I am a research fellow at the Australian National University where I teach and study biology.  You can easily find me on the internet if you would like more details."  "What is your qualification?" "I have a Ph.D." His face dropped; it seems that everyone here knows Ph.D. and university. "Which countries did you visit before Iran?" I rattled them off and my interpreter, whose name I still didn't know, translated them: England, France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Austria again, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria and Turkey.  "All by bicycle?"  "Yes, it is amazing where a bicycle can take you and your entire luggage."  "Why do you ride a bicycle?"  Next came "in which hotels did you stay"?  Here I thought dishonesty was the way to proceed.  At the time it seemed foolish to say that I spent one night in Ali's peach orchard and another five metres from the railway lines on the main Tehran-Tabriz line.  Now, however, that I have travelled extensively in Iran and seen people putting up their tents on median strips and city parks, I would feel more confident saying that I camp, but perhaps not near railway lines.  He asked me about the quality of the hotels.  "Maku" I said "very good".  It was an absolute dive but the hot water eventually arrived, giving me my first decent wash in two weeks, and I did watch the football.  "Tabriz" I said "not good".  I had a bad night in the tent there thanks to a pack of dogs that took some time to learn that they were sharing their territory for the night.  He asked the name of the hotel.  "I cannot remember; it was late and I was tired and that probably explains why I thought it was bad. I know roughly where it is – useless information in a city of a couple of a million and 200,000 alleys."  The questioning went on and on for about an hour but it was obvious from early in the piece that the fellow wanted a way out.  The most obvious exit was to conduct a thorough interview, fill a wad of paper and then call it quits.  This is exactly what he did, besides spending an extraordinary amount of time examining "Hints for Travellers", the booklet issued by Foreign Affairs that comes with the Australian passport.  Unfortunately, in the same pouch I had an envelope of passport photos ready for my visa applications along the way.  It was not to be.  The gopher snitched them and handed them to his lackeys as souvenirs, as though I was a celebrity whose photo was worth a thousand tomans rather than a few rials.

He announced that the interview was over and I asked for my passport.  He said that they would return it when I covered my legs.  I went to my bicycle, now in a secure place, put trousers over my shorts and returned for my passport, thinking all of the time that the old woman who went into a tizzy outside the cake shop must have contacted the police.  This was not the case.  We left the police station and I formally met my interpreter – Pourya.

We ended up at the florists that Pourya runs with a friend and as I used the internet we talked about university.  I asked him what he studied and he replied "agricultural science, M.Sc.".  Well, remarkable, because that was my qualification before I ventured to ecology and the nutrition of wild animals.  Pourya insisted that I come to his room for lunch and I explained that I really must be going because I had to get to Zanjan, 150 km away, by lunchtime tomorrow.  It was already 1 PM but I compromised and said "alright, but I must be away by 3; also, there's a slight problem – I am a vegetarian".  Pourya made a quick phone call and soon we were heading to his "room", a ten minute walk away. 

His "room" from the outside was fairly non-descript but certainly a house rather than a room.  He opened a gate so that I could wheel my bike into a beautiful little courtyard with a few thriving pistachio trees.  I removed my shoes and entered a large room covered with gorgeous rugs.  Here I met and shook hands with Tahereh, his mother, Asghar, his father, and said hello to his young sister, Sama.  Perhaps it was the smell of my socks that prompted suggestions that I should shower, but I declined the offer to wash my clothes because no one other than me should have to go near them.  Impeccably clean and wearing some of Pourya's clothes, I sat down and talked to Asghar, with Pourya interpreting once more.  I learnt that Asghar was retired from his job as an agricultural scientist and, with a smirk, he told me that he took a religion pill each day rather than pray. 

It was then time for lunch and in the dining room there was a sight that a touring cyclist could normally only dream about:  a table covered with luscious food that I forgot to photograph: vegetables in a tomato base, an eggplant and meat dish, yoghurt, bread, salads, cinnamon, powdered ginger.  As we sat down another of Pourya's friends appeared – Siamack, and what did he do?  Siamack is just finishing his M.Sc. in agricultural science.  Incredible! That makes four of us!! Did I ever think that 34 years after starting agricultural science at the University of Sydney that I would sit back with three fellow agricultural scientists and laugh about the stupidity of the Iranian police?  Not a chance! I might add that there are blue police and green police in Iran.  The blue police give me directions, drinks and tea.  The green police are the security police and are best avoided. 

By now it was after 4 and I really had to go.  I went to the bathroom to change back into my filthy cycling clothes but they were gone.  Tahereh had abducted them, put them in the washing machine and hung them on the line.  Apparently, they were almost dry.  I asked Pourya and Siamack if there were many towns between Miyaneh and Zanjan and they replied "no".  That's good news for camping but not so good for supplies so it was off to the shop in Siamack's car.  We returned, I packed and then they piloted me back to the highway.  Just out of Miyaneh I stopped for a moment to get rid of my trousers, following the advice of the police that shorts are fine when cycling but I must wear trousers in towns.  I then pedaled hard on a route that included remarkable tunnels, one a kilometer long.  Unfortunately, the light deteriorated and for a time a headwind hampered my progress.  Do there always have to be roadworks and copious dust when there is a headwind?  I managed to get 47 km from Miyaneh, laughing most of the way about the day's events and stopping just once more to devour a bike bottle of flat, warm Fanta, before jumping over the railway lines to a great camping spot. The rest of the time I was fuelled by Tahereh's brilliant lunch.  I could not help think of those stupid police officers making their living hassling people and completely missing the point of what I was doing.  And what did they think I was doing?  My first question after formally meeting Pourya was whether the woman in the street had complained about my dress.  He said "no" with a wide grin.  "The policeman thought you were a spy."  Pourya went on to explain that the officer heard us speaking English so assumed that I must be a spy and Pourya, my contact.  Brilliant!  That guy will go places for sure.  He probably has already:  to the dungeon below the cop shop for a thorough beating!!  He should give the game away and get a noble profession – agricultural science, perhaps.

The Iranian cycling team; I couldn't keep up
Heart 1 Comment 0
Rate this entry's writing Heart 2
Comment on this entry Comment 0