IRAN, Tour of Azarbaijan

Iran, for my third time!  How lucky do I feel!  No, no unsafe, or scared but LUCKY!  Irans a trip, for sure, but I always get so excited about heading over again.  This year, we ran out of luck in that the Tour of Tehran was canned, so, we only went for one race, the Tour of Azarbaijan.  Lesson learnt – for less than two weeks (I was there ten days) you can get a visa on arrival for half of what we paid at the embassy, and the guys that did that breezed through.  So, although we got interrogated at KL airport (and that was strange to, 6 of us checking in, and 2 of us had to wait to speak to some official dude who was representing Iran.  What did he want to know? How much money we had.. and ‘Oh!! You already have visas? No problem’… um yeah, that’s what weve been saying all along for the past 10 minutes?)  anyway, apparently because of nuclear tension (do they make weapons or don’t they) then Iran has been cracking down on visitors.  ‘Especially’ Australians – well! I said as I flashed my passport in this dudes face, that’s ok then, cos Im a kiwi! Hehe So,2  of us had to run to passport control, through security and then down to the gate, with minutes to spare!  Don’t like that sort of pre-travel stress!

We were flying with Air Asia again, have to admit, theres nothing wrong with the airbuses they use for long haul, seats aren’t too crammed, the meal was ok.. however, within seconds of getting on the plane there was ‘Iranian confusion’ – and older guy infront of me was annoyed that there were bags in the overhead locker above him and what about if his wife wanted to put her bag up there and then use it during the flight – the result, about 5 guys all in on this problem.. the result? Old guy sat down again, hed let it slide.  I moved from behind him to an empty seat opposite him – I got a lot of smiles from him and his wife, during the flight.

Arrived in Iran, head scarves on and time to disembark.  Flew through customs, got our bags ok and thought id had two of my besties come to the airport to meet me – and I managed to quickly get a sim card, we were hurried on to our next stop, the bus station. No surprises there, we were going to be put on an overnight bus bound for Tabriz.  One surprise – we got to the bus, got onboard and then were ‘told’ we had bought one too many people from what we booked, what?!?! Problem solved, the jump seat next to the driver!

I have to admit, I don’t like that drive, cos its so long, but a herbal sleeper helped and I saw the sunrise through the window, which was a nice touch of scene setting for arrival into Tabriz.

We had to change from our big bus, at the bus depot on the outskirts of Tabriz, to a smaller, local bus – complete with dirty interior, ripped seats and a driver that smoked in the bus… but it wasn’t for long.  The hotel was another big race hotel, with the standard huge, gilded lobby.  Actually the rooms were pretty good to, and bed was welcomed, until I got the phone call telling me I was needed for the technical meeting.. WHAT?! Im not the manager this year!!! So, I was woken up so got up.  Met our French manager Yves, and his trusty side-kick, our French mechanic Angels.  Off to the meeting we went.  I flagged the mangers meeting later in the day, I was so ready for sleep it was beyond belief – after the opening ceremony, which is never a quick affair.

We met our team interpreter at lunch time, Golamreza, whose English was amazing and he proved to be such a great guy to have on the team.

And the rest of the week was a blur of stages!! I was in the van, not the managers car, so I didn’t see much of the action – except for day one, when the vans ended up stuck behind the race, and then cat and moused their way along the roads, behind the convoy, but at one point we WERE the convoy – time to listen, slow down and get back behind the race!! That stage they had a rescue helo following the race, its by far the biggest, most impressive looking rescue helicopter Ive ever seen! Amazing!

Mid way through the tour was National Womens day – a day to celebrate monthers , women, girls, sisters etc.  There was 3 of us ladies on the tour this year – myself, the manager of the team from Paraguay and a lady from Taiwan who owns the helmet company that was a sponsor of the event.  We were all presented, in a small, private ceremony, with a box of local chocolates and a handmade bag.  Wicked! Thanks! J

Azarbaijan is windy, and this tour there was little resplite. Some days it was amzing what the winds got up to.  Wowsers!  Makes the notorious Tour of Southland look like a sea breeze.

The Laleh Hotel in Sarein, I remember from the year before (and maybe in 08 as well?) and I received the warmest welcome ever! They definitely remember me from last year.

Stage 5 finished at ‘Sahand’ which was basically a 3000m summit finish, at a ski field! And we us soigeurs arrived, it was snowing!  No ones prepared for that in a summer race – we were huddled inside the ski lodge drinking tea and chatting.  A wait of about 3 hours till the riders started trickling in.  Trickle in they did, some collapsed at the finish line (the climb was around 30km), but for others, they made it look easy, however, those of us at the finish line stepped in and helped each rider after they crossed the line by pushing them up the road to their cars.  Its where I ‘did a calf’, I still don’t even know what I did, exactly, but I had gone up to the line for my rider, and as I went to walk him up the road, something ‘pinged’ in my leg and I couldn’t walk on it!! It was also my introduction to kinesiotape (thanks race doc!) which blew me away!!  Big  fan now!

So, for the last stage, I was at the hotel.  Along with OCBC from Singapore, they were all out of the race, so, we set off to explore the Tabriz bazaar – the biggest, and oldest from the Silk Route, apparently.  I have been before, but its still amazing to see!  And it was a nice way to spend a morning.

So the racing.. yeah, well, like I say, I didn’t see a lot of it! Dukhla Praha were mega strong, of course Azad and TPT from Iran were strong, my guys rode well… some good racing!! One stage, they were sitting on 26km an hour, because of the wind!  I told you it was windy!

This year, much to my astonishment, we were not put on a bus the night the race finished, for that arduous drive to Tehran! Yes, we got to sleep in the hotel!! We were leaving at 8am the next day, but that was more like 9.30 am local time.. J and it took 12 hours to get to Tehran.  Apparently the driver wasn’t even sure where he was taking us?  But, it was to the airport, to deliver our Frenchies and the OCBC team.  And it was as we dropped them off, that I got a phone call from a friend in Iran saying that we did NOT have a booking at Azadi Sports Complex, for accommodation… L  anyway, thanks to some quick thinking and a few phone calls, we got beds at a hotel not far from Azadi, that was the race hotel for Tour of Tehran the year before, SCORE! (thanks Alireza and Ali).  And so began my two nights in Tehran.  Welcome nights sleep that first night, and then a day with Alireza the next day, choice! Actually, we didn’t do a hell of a lot! Coffee, money exchange and then lunch! That evening, I was picked up by another friend, Zara, and we drove back to her house.. yay! A was finally going to get a night in an Iranian house!  The drive back was interesting, never, ever, EVER underestimate the traffic you may encounter in Tehran.  The place is massive, its beyond belief!  Part of the trip took us down a ‘strip’ of road that is renown for being a ‘pick up’ spot!! Seriously! And it was so entertaining, we did two laps!! You drive with your windows down and the offers come a-flying.  Especially with me, the foreigner, in the car, who doesn’t wear a regular hijab (I have my own system of head-scarfing).  I haven’t laughed so much in so long!

It was a late late night.  What a beautiful family – mother and three 20 something daughters.  We had an Iranian feast for dinner, at around midnight, and it was nearer 2am when we all went to bed.

The next day was a late start, but we did go out for lunch, which was beautiful – and in a restaurant that I went to last year with a different friend! Talk about feeling like a local!

Which brings me to a couple of things about Iran.  Yes, I have to cover up.  For me, I make my own system though, which means a scarf tied over my head, as opposed to under the chin and t shirt with thai fisherman pants, but I drape a pashmina over my shoulders.  Works so well for me!  But yes, causes a bit of a stir – especially this year, apparently a pair of my pants was too short and I was disrespecting security.. umm ok.

And he food, WOW is all I can say about Iranian food. They really have it good! And it shows, in the distinct LACK of obesity, which I really noticed.  They have their complex carbs, but theyre not staples in the diet, and theres plenty of meat (lamb and chicken) and good fats – butter, cream (the cream is just divine), oils.. im sure they even have less processed foods available than some other places Ive been to. And Iran is all about home cooking, mother cooks (generally).  Iv always found some of their cuisine a bit ‘samey’ before, but not this time. This time I was almost counting down the times to eat LAMB!! J

And that took me close to the time I needed to get a taxi to the airport.  I went back to the hotel to meet the other guys from the team who were leaving with me.  That was an uneventful trip to the airport, followed by an uneventful check-in and an uneventful departure!!

Rock on Iran, see you next year – in’shallah!!


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