[While reading the Solar Cycle Diaries, I was introduced to this very-well-written blog about a tandem-bike-ride through Turkey and Iran in 2001. Here's the URL to get you to it:
As chance would have it, our arrival in Tabriz coincides with the last stage of the sixteenth Azerbaijan Bicycle Tour. Toiling our way up a steep climb out of Marand, we're left teetering over a valley that encloses the city, confronted by dozens of cyclists procuring track side spots for this 1000km regional version of the Tour de France.
It's Friday, day of rest for Muslims. Like Turks, Iranians seem a nation of picnic lovers. Extended families of fragile old grandpas, languidly relaxed fathers, chador clad wives and football obsessed teenagers (What is your country? England? David Beckam!!) tuck into home made feasts, alluringly served on portable carpets. Gathering momentum like a torpedo, we rocket by to frantic waves and yelps of delight, defiant against the hardy headwind that's trying its best to slow the descent after all our hard toil. Through forested valleys and along undulating plains, the road eventually flattens and widens into the industrial outskirts of the city.
We stop for a few gulps of water in the heat of the day, squeezed onto the gravel by a fleet of thundering lorries. Two Lycra skinned riders - a particularly strange sight in this Muslim republic - join us for the last fifteen kilometres into the city. Our introductions to Habib and Farad are made on the move, all but drowned out by the roar of traffic, uneasily cycling side by side just a hair's width from a stream of friendly by lumbering trucks and nimble but careless Paykan saloons.
A quick pit stop before we reach the city suburbs has our friends unfolding neatly pressed shirts and trousers from rucksacks, blending into the Islamic surroundings once more. Expecting to reach the city centre, before we know we find ourselves on a tour that emerges before Habib's home, introduced to his radiantly rounded mother, shaking the hand of a slightly bemused father and nodding towards clusters of intrigued neighbours peering from windows and doorways. Downing rounds of tea we work our way through a bowl of fruit before a half dozen giggling children, waited over like king and queen.
It's our first time in an Iranian house, our first experience of Iranian hospitality. We sit on the floor propped up with cushions, admiring the open design and simple decorations, painfully aware of our smelly socks. Habib is a baker, his brother a dentist and his father a bus driver. Their home is far bigger and more modern than we expect. Carpets are the main theme and there's not a bed or chair in sight - just a spotless kitchen and in the background a DVD of a Maria Carey concert - perhaps to make us feel more at home! After a few days in cramped hotels, it seems very luxurious.
As well as two brothers who watch us through thick glasses, Habib has two sisters who move like a blur, constantly scuttling around to replenish tea cups and fruit plates, disappearing into the kitchen every few moments. A succession of doorbell rings marks the arrival of friends and family, reminding us of a soap opera. Away from the prying eyes of the street, Rosal is allowed to lift her hejab - the head dress that conforms to Iranian law - and there follows a session of hair gazing, swooning and admiration. Habib's family express their dislike for the religious mullahs and their stringent laws, preferring the pre Islamic Revolution rule of Shah Pahlavi. Despite the Shah's apparently repressive government, it's an opinion we have heard several times in just the few days we have been in Iran.
A stilted conversation, limited by the phrases in the back of our Lonely Planet guidebook, is relieved by the arrival of the wife of Habib's brother. Married by arrangement just two months ago after Habib' s mother took a shine to this sweet faced teenager, Elnaz is just 16 to Ali's 27 years of age. As far as we can make out, the couple don't live together just yet - Eland has been called out to put her studies into practise and act as interpreter. With the help of an English-Farsi dictionary, we chat way, silences filled by all round beaming smiles until a banquet of rice and salad appears, served on a huge plastic tablecloth laid out on the carpet. Our arrival is celebrated by the opening of a dozen bottles of neon orange Zam Zam - the Iranian equivalent of Fanta. Plates stacked high with crispy rice seasoned with red currents are proffered and we're strongly encouraged to eat until we can no longer move, then invited to stretch out and relax our weary limbs.
Such incredible hospitality, almost overbearing in its zeal, puts our own Western preconceptions of Islamic people to shame. Two strangers invited into a home, we can have hoped for no warmer welcome to Tabriz, gratefully accepting their offer to spend the night.