As has become tradition, we will share with you our favourite panoramas in our final Iranian blog post.
Iran was certainly one of the most surprising countries we travelled through. The country is certainly not perfect (but which country is?), the traffic is a nightmare and the pollution can be unpleasant (like everywhere else in Asia). But Iran has wonderful sights and overwhelmingly friendly and generous people, and that includes the officials. No matter where we were, something or someone would make us smile at least every 20 minutes – we just loved it.
If you have not decided on a holiday destination for 2014, we would definitely recommend a trip to Iran.
Iran is a vast country, we did nearly 5,500km in total and over 2,000km crossing the Dasht-e Kavir alone. Not recommended in their summer, apparently it can regularly reach 50degC.
A beautiful campsite on the long desert road from Mashhad to Yazd through the heart of the country. The mounds of dirt in the foreground are from the qanats, ancient underground water channels dug to bring water from the mountains to the cattle.
These two Zoroastrian towers of silence lie on the outskirts of Yazd. In use until the 1960’s, the dead were brought here to be picked clean by vultures. The walls built at the top of the mounds prevented anyone but the official attendants from seeing in.
View from our campsite over the ruins at Pasargadae, an ancient Persian city built by Cyrus the Great but soon superseded by Persepolis.
Sassanian bas reliefs at Naqsh-e Rajab depicting victory over the Roman armies in 240AD.
Incredible reliefs on the Apadana Staircase, shown here are the Imperial Guard. Plaster-casts taken over 200 years ago are on display in the British Museum.
The Palace of 100 Columns was believed to be where the empire’s military elite would meet the Emperor.
The ruins of Persepolis, the capital of the Persian Empire, its heyday was 300BC before Alexander the Great burned it to the ground.
Carpet anyone? The bazaar is absolutely full of them, with endless varieties of style, size and weave. If you are going to buy, make friends with a local to help. The Iranians buy them, as with gold, for an investment.
The Jameh (Friday) mosque is the most important mosque in Esfahan. The ablutions block in the centre of the impressive square is a replica of that at Mecca allowing would-be pilgrims to familiarise themselves with the layout.
Imam Square fountain in Esfehan, dating from 1600, is the centrepiece of this grand city. The square is second in size only to Tienanmen Square in Beijing and was originally used to play polo. The polo posts can still be seen on the square.
Imam Square – reflections at night.
The Ballasting sand dunes in the enormous Dasht-e Kavir desert which covers the heart of Iran. It was a beautiful day without a breath of wind.
This extravagant merchant’s house was built in 1880 and there are several you can visit in Kashan.
Sunrise over Namak salt lake, 1,800km2 and located in the Dasht-e Kavir desert.
Salt crystal details of the Namak salt lake at sunrise (vertical panorama).
It wasn’t hard to find a flat camp site here.
Beautiful views over the Alamut Valley with the Alboroz Mountains in the distance and the autumn colours of the cherry orchards in the foreground. The view was from one of the Castles of the Assassins, it was from here in the 12th century that the leaders of the unconventional Ismaili sect hid and sent raiding forces to kill or kidnap leading figures of the Persian establishment.
We watched a whole team of fishermen working to bring in the catch of the day on the southern shores of the Caspian sea. A gaggle of ducks waited expectantly in case there were any scraps left for them. In the end the catch was so small it didn’t even amount to one fish per fisherman. Things look bleak for this ecosystem.
The volcanic crater lake is the centrepiece of the Takth-e Soleyman fire and water temple. The temple site is 1,500 years old and was once the spiritual centre of Zoroastrianism, which at one stage was the state religion. Followers worshiped earth, wind, fire and water, all present in this site with the fire being provided by volcanic gasses channeled to the fire temple in ceramic pipes.
We were invited to share a memorable meal with this Kurdish family in Takab. The Kurds live in the North West of Iran with large populations also in Iraq and Turkey.
We did our best to get the whole family in one picture, but failed. They certainly know how to party, with dancing, singing and card games enjoyed by all generations well into the night.
After a long day exploring the huge bazaar in Tabriz, we stopped for a well earned tea and qalyan (water pipe) with our hosts Sina and Mohammad. Whilst Jude was allowed in, these teahouses are usually male only.
Our hosts Sina and Mohamed snuck us in to see the celebrations to commemorate the death of Imam Hoessein in the Tabriz bazaar. Groups representing different areas of the city would perform in turn with beating drums and chanting, very dramatic.
In Iran we enjoyed filling up. Instead of heavily taxing petrol and diesel, the government here subsidises it. Every car gets an allowance of 60L per month at a subsidised rate, and to get this price they use a fuel card. Once they have used up their 60L, they can continue to buy petrol, but at the normal price. The same applies for trucks. They get a quota subsidised per month so they can buy diesel at 4ct a liter (!). After they reach their quota for that month, they have to pay full price: 13ct a liter.
We were advised to use a truck driver’s fuel card to get the cheaper diesel, but we never did. It didn’t feel fair that we would use a chunk of their cheaper fuel and they would then have to pay the full price. After all, to fill our 120L tank we pay (at full price) about $13. Not exactly economic hardship for us.
When looking for fuel we always had to search for buses or trucks that were filling up as many petrol stations didn’t have diesel. All cars in Iran run on petrol, only trucks use diesel. And when we did find diesel they would generally first try to wave us away, as they assumed, being a car, we were in the wrong spot. And then, as we were filling up, we would always have to be weary when she was nearly full. The high-flow nozzles common for trucks often resulted in the last liter or so squirting out, covering whoever filled up with the lovely perfume of diesel on clothes and shoes.
When leaving Iran we decided to fill up some jerrycans with diesel to make venturing into Turkey a little less painful on the wallet. Fuel is definitely not subsidised in Turkey, one liter of diesel going for $2.20! Ouch. The Iranians were reluctant to fill up jerrycans, but in the end we had an extra 80L hidden in the big aluminium box on the roof. But we needed have worried. Turkish customs saw the jerrycans, asked what was in them and didn’t blink when we said diesel… That was a quick saving of $150 for us. Score!
Most daily necessities are cheap in Iran too, but due to the sanctions, imported products are expensive. We were expecting it to be hard or impossible to find things like Coca-Cola, Apple products and other American brands, but no. Everything is for sale in Iran, Coca-Cola is even made under licence in Iran. And all major brands we can get, they can buy too. You want an iPhone, no problem. Prefer an Android Samsung Galaxy, no problem. A Sony camera or any other brand, no problem. You pay the standard price for these items, which is a lot for Iranians, but you can get anything you want.
The only real limitation we noticed was that the Visa / MasterCard networks don’t operate here. The Iranians have banks and ATMs where they can get money, but unless you have an Iranian bank account you can’t use their ATMs. Even when you try to pay something with an Australian credit card on an Australian website when physically located in Iran it doesn’t work. Paypal even blocks your account when you try.
For us this meant we needed to bring cash into the country, US$ preferred, to exchange. As it was the same in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, there were quite a few dollars stashed away in various hidey-holes in Lara. I hope we remember where we put it all…. And don’t change money at the official rate in a bank, find a money changer or a jeweler as they give you much better rates.
Another American thing that hasn’t made it into Iran, or into a lot of Central Asian countries, are the fast-food chains. There are no McDonalds, Burger Kings or KFCs. Bliss! Instead, local, delicious foods are still being sold everywhere, fantastic.
We had another good meal at Tak Taku guesthouse in the Dasht-e Kavir desert. We spent one cozy night there in the company of 2 Spanish guys and a Slovenian cyclist, two of them being vegetarian too, before getting the bikes off the back of the car for our one and only bike ride in Iran (try riding with a headscarf). It’s a short ride, but Mohammad takes us through his village where houses are built like little fortresses with individual courtyards, and explains some interesting local customs. For example the two knockers on each door, one long and thin one, and another round and fat. One is used to announce male (or mixed) visitors, the other for females. When a female knocks on a door, the sound is recognised and a female of the household will open. You can probably guess which one is used for whom…
Mohammad also draws us a map of the sand dunes we should visit as well as a huge salt lake in the area. An amazing contrast to the beautiful waterfall we visited and the (still snowless) ski slopes in the Zagros Mountains, or the Caspian Sea in the north where fishermen are desperately trying to survive on what little is left of the fish in this vast lake.
We were certainly seeing how diverse Iran is, how much the country has to offer. And we didn’t even have time to explore the western area with all the Kurdish settlements in the mountains.
By the time we got to the salt lake it was dark. We parked in the middle of it and woke up to a stunning sunrise on the desolate salt flats. The sand dunes were beautiful and we saw many Iranian families gathered for picnics and driving around the dunes, it’s a Friday – their weekly day off.
We got really excited when we see the Defender’s Iranian clone, a Pazhan, in the sand dunes. We drive over for a closer look and after a few minutes one of the girls jumped out and started to talk to Jude in perfect English. They are here for a day, 4WD-ing in the dunes and having a picnic with some friends. Even though at first glance the Pazhan looks like a Defender, it had a Mitsubishi engine and can’t be relied on for spare parts for a Defender as every part is slightly different. It is funny to see they have chosen to locally copy the Defender, in a weird way we felt a bit honoured.
The other local car, the Paykan, is apparently no longer made (although we did see some new Paykan Utes on the back of a big lorry). Its based on the 1960’s British Hillman Hunter and they seem to last forever. Sadly everything moves on eventually, and nowadays you can see everything driving around. Peugeots are even made locally, but there are still plenty of Paykans on the street, making the scene look a bit like the 60s at times, without the sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll of course!
To say there is a lot of history in Iran is an understatement and everywhere there are old bridges, mosques and bas-reliefs to marvel at, ruins, bazaars, ancient cities and archeological findings to wander through.
Near Yazd we saw our favourite caravan serai of the trip. Painstakingly restored to its former glory, it is now a basic, but very comfortable hotel, complete with stylish furnishings to create private rooms from the original 400-year old alcoves. A tour bus had descended on Zein-o-din which meant it was full, but the next morning we enjoyed a cuppa whilst having an informative chat with Karman, the owner. If you ever go to Iran, stay here, you’ll love it.
Our next stop was Pasargadae, a city built in 546BC by Cyrus the Great. We arrived there around 4pm as the sun was setting and decided we would find a place to camp before visiting the ruins as it’s always incredibly hard to find a good camp site after darkness falls. But, to our surprise, we could see all the ruins from the road around the back. We found a great campsite amongst the fields with a view over the tomb of Cyrus and a lone gate from his palace and decided to stay put. We deserved a night off and the view from our campsite was at least as good, that’s what we told ourselves anyway (yes, we’re on a budget).
Close to Shiraz is one of Iran’s most impressive archeological sites – Persepolis. This was the capital of the Persian empire which stretched from India to Ethiopia at one point, started by king Darius I, and superseding Pasargadae. As it was hardly mentioned in historical records, some archeologists believe it was a secret city, similar to Macchu Picchu, and might have been used only during celebrations of No Ruz (New Year). Unfortunately Alexander the Great looted and then burned the whole place down after living there for a few months – that’s gratitude for you. Luckily the ruins were subsequently covered with dust and sand until 80 years ago when they were dug out, remaining remarkably well preserved.
Persepolis certainly makes an impression, as the whole thing is built on a 125,000m2 terrace supported on three sides by huge retaining walls which also acted as the city’s fortification. A grand staircase leads up to it, conveniently made with low, deep steps so royalty could stride up the stairs with dignity.
Once on the plateau of Persepolis, the level of detail in all the carvings is incredible, the size of the statues enormous and the number of columns still proudly standing the test of time staggering. The most impressive parts of Persepolis, for us, were the Apadana staircase with its seriously impressive, detailed bas-reliefs and Xerxes’ Gateway (Gate of all Nations) at the top of the Grand Stairway leading up to the plateau.
As we arrived in Persepolis we had bumped into Frank & Melanie, 2 fellow overlanders from Germany driving a Landcruiser. They were just leaving so we exchanged phone numbers and agreed we would meet up later that night in Shiraz where they knew a campground in the city. To our surprise when we arrived there, another Landcruiser from Dutch overlanders Jan & Margriet was parked there too. We had a lovely evening swapping stories and tips, rounded off with a much-needed hot shower before climbing into bed.
One of our favourite cities in Iran was Esfehan, with its overwhelming Imam Square (the second largest square in the world, the biggest being Tiananmen Square in Beijing), beautiful old mosques and palaces and a number of old bridges, one even dating back to the 12th century. Unfortunately the bridges were spanning a completely dry river when we were there. It’s not quite the same to see bridges across a dry riverbed.
We spent 3 days in Esfehan, wandering the streets and the lovely bazar, visiting the mosques, palaces and hammams, buying our carpet of course, as well as some great Christmas presents for our families. But we also had some mundane tasks to do like laundry, emails and servicing Lara, including an oil change and swapping the well warn rear brakes. This meant we were now using the Lada breaks we had acquired in Tajikistan with the help of Rashid.
In the small village of Nushabad, we discovered a few underground cities. These are rather unusual and very similar to the underground cities in Cappadocia, Turkey. We decided to explore one of them and just as we got out of the car, the man with the key pitched up on his motorbike. His mates must have given him a ring as we drove into town. He opened up for us and became our guide. Whilst he didn’t speak a lot of English, with a lot of sign language and some English words from him we had a great conversation.
The city was built next to a huge underground water reservoir, with an outlet near the entrance of the underground city. From the reservoir a narrow path wound its way slowly down until it intersected with another corridor. On both sides of the corridor were rooms, complete with hacked-out-of-the-wall candle holders. This is where the inhabitants of Nushabad would hide, and live, during the Mongol invasion in the 13th century complete with their livestock. It continued to be in use as an emergency shelter until 1920. Whilst impressive, it couldn’t have been very pleasant to live down there for extended periods.
In Kashan we didn’t just eat the sensational coconut macaroons, but also visited some of the town’s traditional houses. They were mostly built in the 19th century by wealthy businessmen and some have now been turned into musea. All have numerous, interlinked courtyards and are extravagantly decorated with stained glass windows, fine stucco panels, painted walls and ceilings and of course the cooling badgirs (wind towers). It was perhaps a shame the houses were completely empty as it would have come to life much more with furniture.
The depth of historic attractions in Iran is wonderful, but we had a schedule to keep and it was time to move on.
We get up, have breakfast and fold away the tent. Nothing unusual here, we’ve been doing it now for more than 8 months pretty much every day and are getting pretty efficient. But in Iran that is where the similarities with other countries end. And we’re not just talking about the fact that Jude wears a headscarf and a poncho to conform with hejab rules.
We’ll tell you about our morning in Masouleh, a tiny village in the mountains near the Caspian Sea. This is one example, but it happened everywhere we went. We could have also told you about Sina and Mohammad in Tabriz or about an entire Kurdish family in Takab. The stories are all similar and it makes our hearts heavy when we think we will have to leave this beautiful country with its wonderful people soon.
The clouds were hanging low in the valley this morning and for the first time in many months we woke up to grey skies. We had left the deserts behind and ventured north and west far enough that we were not only seeing, but also feeling the effects of autumn all around us. The magnificent reds and yellows of the trees made up for the fact we didn’t see the sun much today.
We had parked Lara near the stream at the bottom of the village as there are no roads, just narrow cobbled lanes in Masouleh. It’s built on one side of a valley so steep, that the roof of one house is the next house’s terrace. In some areas these terraces have been converted to tea houses and restaurants and the narrow streets are littered with tiny shops and guest houses.
As we walked into the village we could smell fresh bread and saw someone carrying several long flatbreads. We asked around and were pointed in the right direction. A small queue of locals was already standing in front of the tiny bakery. When we peered inside we saw an enormous oven, with a turnstyle below it, from which the baker frantically collected the bread and replaced it with new batches of doe (deeg) which then disappeared into the oven for a few seconds. We joined the end of the queue and waited our turn.
Just before it was our turn to order, the lady in front of us turned around and asked us how many breads we wanted. We tell her we want 2. She tells the baker for us. When she collects her breads she turns around and tells us we’ll have to wait 5 minutes for the next batch as he has run out. No problem we tell her, we can wait 5 minutes. She then says she has already paid for our breads and when we protest she tells us we are her guests. All we can do is thank her. Luckily we have by now learnt how to say ‘thank you very much’ in Farsi. With Iranians being so extremely friendly we use this a lot!
Then, as we are waiting for our bread, a man starts to talk to Jon. His English is, like the lady who paid for our bread, excellent and soon he invites us over to his house for breakfast. We tell him we have already had our breakfast, but as he insists, we say we can join him for a cup of chay (tea). We walk with him as he does the breakfast shopping and head back to meet his family. They are on a short holiday and have rented one of the traditional houses in the village for their stay.
We join his wife, Assa (daughter) and Mohammad (son). Jon, without any problems, manages to eat a second breakfast, including homemade carrot jam and halva. Afterwards we join Assa for a walk through town. Like her brother, her English is excellent. She is studying to become a lawyer, her brother wants to be an engineer, after he has completed his compulsory 2 years of national service that is. It’s nice to walk through town and have somebody to talk about Iranian life with. We still have many questions about Iran, the people, but also about food, sport, education and customs. With all people we meet in Iran we have pretty wide-ranging conversations, and hear some very interesting points of view.
We invite the whole family for a cup of tea and a qalyan (water pipe) in a rooftop tea house. Assa enjoys the qalyan as much as her brother, and we smoke double apple for the first time – a mix of green and red apple flavour. As it is getting cold we don’t linger but continue our walk through town to warm up.
Assa and her mum disappear briefly and return with an empty cooking pot. The mosque is feeding everybody in town as part of the Ashura celebrations and she gets a pot full of rice and remu, a delicious mixture of vegetables and minced meat. It’s only 11 o’clock and we’re going back to their house for more food!
After this early lunch we really have to go. It has started to rain and we walk quickly back to the car where we say goodbye. We are handed a Tupperware container of the delicious home-made carrot jam as well. Back on the road, we get hooted at every few minutes by locals who want to get our attention just to say hello. They wave enthusiastically from their cars, motorbikes or sometimes their donkey. We get stopped a few times in small villages and are handed cups of tea or sweets, again part of the Ashura celebrations.
Just before we find our camp site for the night on a little side road, Jon needs to stop for a pee. As soon as he is finished 2 men jump out of the car that has pulled up behind us. They talk to us enthusiastically in Farsi, then call a friend who speaks English to translate. They want us to stay in their house, but when we politely decline, they give us some orange juice and want to fill up Lara with diesel. Half an hour later than planned we continue our journey, having become friends yet again with two complete strangers.
It has been another ‘normal’ day in Iran. We realise how lucky we are to meet all these remarkable people on our trip. Neither of us has experienced anything quite like it before, and it is quite humbling to experience this level of genuine generosity. It makes you think hard about the society we live in, which is undoubtedly friendly, but doesn’t go much beyond that. An interesting life lesson for sure.
Thank you to all the wonderful Iranian people who made our stay in Iran incredible, many of you remained anonymous, but we want to especially thank:
- the staff member of a random bank who helped us find our feet after the border crossing (in Quchan)
- Mohammad (in Mashad)
- Sina, Mohammad and Ahmed, Mehdi, Saber, Parastoo and Tahir (all in Tabriz)
- Alma, Francoise, Fatima, Marziye and Mehdi, Ismail (all in Esfehan)
- Karman and Mojtaba (Folke & Astrid’s guide) (all in or near Yazd – if you want a good Iranian guide go to http://www.heidaritour.ir)
- Assa, Mohammad and their father and mother (in Masouleh)
- the entire Kurdish family of around 40 people (in Takab)
- Shakila and Sahar and her journalist friend (in Shiraz)