It was Iran that typified one of the most memorable aspects of the trip; that is the kindness and hospitality we have almost universally received. This is not to say there were not moments of serious concern along the way but on a human level, from one person to another, we were welcomed throughout. Quite simply I thought I might highlight a few instances of such kindness.
Nestled in the north-eastern corner of Kazakhstan is the city of Semey. During Soviet times it was renown for being situated close to a large nuclear testing site. Today, the effects of such testing still hang over a generation left deformed and cancer ridden by radiation poisoning. Sweaty and grumpy upon arrival at our hotel some students saw us, there names were Niyaz, Vika and Zhansulu. Before long we were swept up in their designs for our short time in their city. They showed us around during the evening, having a drink and ice cream with them. They banned us from paying for anything. The next day, they offered to be our personal chauffeurs, showing us anything we wanted to see. We were given a much more extensive tour of the city and the surrounding scenic areas as we chatted away in the back. Upon return many hours later and after much argument we just about managed to buy them tea. They wanted nothing more.
In Almaty, the largest city in Kazakstan as we attempted to hailed down an official taxi, a green 1990s E-Class pulled alongside us. A boy, slightly younger than ourselves sat in the back with his father at the wheel. They asked as where we wanted to go and after telling them we hopped into the back. We have been in many unmarked cars and neither car or driver were registered. This however did not concern us in the slightest. After minutes of general chatter, Nuro, the boy in the back said we would be there in twenty minutes, adding in casually that the trip would be free of charge. After half an hour of bad traffic they beamed, waving us off without regret of their decision.
A couple of weeks later, we found ourselves far from power lines or established roads at the top of a pass in the Tian Shan Mountains. Part of the postcard view was an array of grazing cattle and a lone wagon. As I cycled towards it three pairs of short legs jolted towards me, waving towards their home. Their mother or father were nowhere in site and they had as much grasp of English as I did of Kyrgyz. I was tired, still having over an hour to cycle but it was downhill so with a grateful sigh I joined some of the world’s most polite children for tea. The thirteen year old offered to wheel my bike whilst the ten and sixteen year olds scooped some water out of a bowl so I could rinse my hands before they gestured me into the warmth of their home. The wagon was bare, reminding me of a more homely portacabin. A worn pile of playing cards lay on a low table below a single exposed lightbulb: that was all their living room, if I can demarcate like this, contained. I felt I could have packed its contents into a pannier. However, they did not seem dissatisfied with their lack of worldly goods. Together we sat happily eating stale bread and swallowing fermented cows milk whilst trying to communicate with an array of elaborate gestures. After twenty minutes I had established that there were four children in their family and that one of them had a twin (one of the two halves was not there). With a struggle, I managed to communicate that I too was a twin and the cities I was heading for, as they pronounced them again for me - this time correctly. With clouds rolling in as fast as the morning mist lifts I decided to leave promptly, warmly shaking their hands. They seemed to understand my predicament. One of the twins rode on his horse to where the road dropped off. We smiled and waved at each other with a knowing grin.
Whilst there are dozens more instances of equal warmth, I will offer a final one from Iran. This country ended up being not just the friendliest of the trip but of anywhere I have ever travelled. Innumerable times shop keepers would refuse payment for the goods we brought; people would wave or clap out of their cars and those on the street would greet us with uplifting warmth. On one occasion it was pouring down and the wind was gusting as the road became spotted with leaves and branches. It was the sort of weather that would see a reporter gesticulating an amber warning on the morning weather report. As we tried to avoid this debris Will went over a sharp piece of glass creating a gash in his tire. Whilst we solved this by fitting a tire boot a car stopped, asking us if there was anything they could do. Wet and covered in black grease thrown up from the road our apparitions smiled and thanked them. However, they weren’t taking no for an answer as they revealed two warm seeded loaves of bread before waving goodbye.