An elderly woman, her craggy face peering out from the folds of her voluminous black chador, demands my attention.
I’m in the immigration line at the Turkey-Iran border and my heart is pounding as I wait to be stamped into the Islamic Republic.
I nod warily, confirming that yes, that is me — a solo female with a British passport and a motorcycle.
I adjust my headscarf, fearing that my interrogator is a member of Iran’s infamous “morality police,” the hardliners instructed to arrest women for “immodest” behavior.
She jabs me in the chest.
“You come with moto?” she asks again, twisting an imaginary throttle and even adding a few “vroom vroom” sound effects.
I’m still not sure if I’m in trouble but her opinion becomes clear when she grabs my face and gives it an enthusiastic slap, before pulling me in for a rib-crushing hug.
“Very good! Very good!” she shouts while I gasp for breath among the folds of her chador.
“I am wishing you all the luck in the world!”
This enthusiastic welcome sets the scene for my entire journey — motorcycling 3,000 miles around Iran solo and female, from the rugged northwest of the country to the Caspian Sea and over the remote Alborz Mountains to the fume-choked streets of Tehran.
Curiosity about the huge gulf between how Iran is perceived in the West and what I hear about it from the few people I know who have been there.
Often painted in the media as a terrifying place full of extremists, travelers who return from Iran invariably rave about how wonderful and welcoming they found the Iranian people.
I wanted to discover the place for myself.
Following some wild times in the capital, where it turns out you can get everything from contraband bacon to booze, I continue through the peaceful Zagros Mountains to the ancient cities of Esfehan, Shiraz and the deserts of the south.
Reports of tourists being arrested for espionage are in the front of my mind when, at one border post, I’m frogmarched to the police station to be fingerprinted.
But, of course, a people and its government are two separate entities.
Persian hospitality is legendary and I find myself overwhelmed with generosity and kindness from Iranians keen to distance themselves from the negative image of their homeland — from truckers stuffing pomegranates into my panniers to complete strangers insisting on paying for my hotel room and an endless stream of tea.
Of course, there are a couple of challenging moments, most often involving the police.
There are different kinds of police in Iran and on one occasion in Tehran a car full of plainclothes revolutionary guards deliberately drives into me.
On another occasion I’m assaulted at a remote desert gas station by a pump attendant who is probably on meth (quite common in the rural areas, I’m told).
Shouting, he lunges at me.
Luckily I’m still sitting on the bike, and after a kick in the right place I ride off as fast as possible.
But then I’m out in the desert with very little fuel … a pretty scary scenario, too.
In fact, the very act of riding a motorcycle can be daunting in Iran as the driving can be insane.
Iran reportedly has the highest rate of road deaths and traffic related accidents in the world, so every morning I feel like I’m going into battle.
But the welcome from the people makes up for it manifold.
Curious and curiouser
I’m also a source of intense curiosity myself, especially as Iranian women are forbidden from riding motorcycles in public.
Foreign travelers are rare in Iran and the sight of a UK-registered motorcycle caused much excitement among drivers who would pass me with an inch to spare, blasting their horns while hanging out the window and filming me on their phones.
As I travel around I’m passed from stranger to stranger, who quickly become friends, and as a result, find myself mingling with a range of Iranian society.
My hosts range from underground filmmakers and the designer-clad elite of Tehran to a rebel-rousing schoolgirl and Iran’s celebrated explorer, Issa Omidvar, who motorcycled around the world in the 1950s.
Iranians remain warm and fun-loving people.
Some areas off limits
Riding isn’t an entirely free affair though — travelers must take care not to stray into military areas or near nuclear plants and taking pictures of military or official buildings is a no-no.
For my project, I’d snap them quickly and then be on my way, reminded that the authoritarian streak is never far away.
Vast murals of the Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei) loom over every street corner and everyone I meet has a story of police intimidation, arrests and the oppressive reality of life under the regime.
In the desert city of Yazd I’m invited to stay with an ex-army general and his family.
He fought in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and lost his legs in the conflict.
I’m wary of this invitation, wondering what I’ll have in common with an Iranian veteran, but my concerns are unfounded.
He’s far from the grizzled war-monger I fear and within moments of meeting he’s cracking jokes and teaching me Farsi slang.
The highlight of the trip comes, unexpectedly, as we take the elevator in his apartment block to go out for dinner.
I’m learning the Persian numbers as we descend each floor and as we count “three, two, one” he announces in English, “It’s the final countdown!”
We don’t have to say anything. The two of us look at each other, laugh and burst into song.
“Da-da daa daa, da-da da da daa!”
This is the moment I know I’d been right to ignore the naysayers and to come and seek out the real Iran.
Neither East nor West
Iran has always prided itself on being “neither East nor West.”
Geographically it stands between the two cultures, never aligning itself with either, making for the strong sense of Persian identity.
Sadly, the popular image of Iran today, fueled by the rhetoric of politicians means that the Iranian people are lumped in with Islamic extremists and terrorism.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
My travels unveiled a nation of sophisticated, kindhearted people eager to engage with the wider world.
If only their government would follow their example.
Written by Lois Pryce, who spent two periods of 30 days traveling Iran in 2013 and 2014. You can follow her travels at LoisOnTheLoose.com. A book and TV show based on the trip are in production.