If we'd made our decision to travel to Iran based on popular advice we would have never visited. Luckily we did visit. It was exciting to "conquer the unknown" and travel across the country that is neither 'East' nor 'West' and experience first-hand the culture, meet the people, see the sights, learn some of the history, and ultimately form our own opinions based on actual experiences. And the experiences were extraordinary. The highlights;
The Route and the Sights
Over sixteen days our 4000 kilometre route across Iran took us through the major centres of Mashhad in the north east, Tabas and Yazd in the centre, Shiraz and Esfahan in the south west and Tehran, Rasht and the Caspian Coast in the north/north west. Each day offered a new sight or experience - holy mosques, scorching heat, desert, crashed American choppers, arid mountains, ancient cities, modern cities, tropical ranges and beaches to name only a few.
Iran, a country often perceived as being unsafe, redefined hospitality. The people we met across almost the length and width of the country were amongst the most welcoming, polite and interested of all the people we've met so far, and were collectively perhaps the highlight of Iran. While the people are very religious, with varying interpretations and levels of adherence to sharia law, they are certainly not the flag burning extremists that western media often presents the image of. The story below of our travel across Iran will talk more about some of the characters we met along the way.
One outcome of this adventure that we all wanted was to truly experience different cultures, and the Islamic Republic of Iran delivered a real culture "shock". Our cultural and social norms were often in stark contrast to what we experienced. Men openly crying in mosques, women covered head to toe and unable and/or unwilling to hold eye contact or conversation, a dating couple shaking hands at the end of a hot date and parting ways, not being able to swim at a beach, short term marriages (wink-wink) and so much more. With only sixteen days of immersion in Iranian culture we only really scratched the surface but one thing is for certain - whilst interesting during a "honeymoon" period, it would be challenging to fully accept for an extended period.
Ashgabat (Turkmenistan) to Mashhad (Iran)
As we've written before - first impressions count, and Iran made a great first impression. Welcoming customs agents, an efficient process, quick executions of our carnet de passages (1st use) and in under two hours we officially entered Iran.
We met our prearranged guide, Hamid, on the Iranian side of the border. It was a requirement of our visa that Hamid accompany us for the duration of our journey in Iran. After a quick introduction we set off. We stopped just past the first village and Hamid served us tea and biscuits from his car and gave us each a map of Iran. Only a small gesture but we were impressed. After a quick adjustment to our itinerary we set off for Mashhad where we would spend the afternoon and following day exploring.
The road to Mashhad was our first taste of riding in Iran. The asphalt surface was consistently good but the drivers were maniacs. Lanes mean nothing. People wander here and there. Cars would veer right up beside us to snap a couple of photos and nearly push us over. To gain advantage in traffic jams cars would try and force themselves into our lanes. The threat of a good boot into a door tended to do the trick. Zano was bumped twice in the rear by drivers not paying attention. The risks associated with riding had definitely changed but the attention required to stay shiny-side-up had certainly not diminished.
Mashhad is the second biggest city in Iran and it is also the most holy. The shine to Imam Reza (#8) which is located in the city centre attracts millions of pilgrims each year wanting to pay their respects. Apparently it is also good luck for newly married couples to visit the shrine on their honeymoon. The shrine is only open to Muslims but our guide, who we found out is a closet Christian, convinced security we had all recently converted to Islam and we were allowed in. Apparently our beards made his story more convincing. Words cannot describe the ornate mosaics of mirrors and tiles that decorate the interior of the shrine. I will let our photos convey the beauty. We had to aggressively merge into a scrum of men to lay a finger on the tomb, and it was confronting to see grown men openly crying in the inner sanctum. Why does a bloke that’s been dead for 1500 years evoke such emotion? We walked out feeling a little like trespassers, but what an experience.
The balance of our time in Mashhad was spent exploring the bazaar and also becoming better acquainted with our guide.
The bazaar was two massive corridors running in parallel for 1.5 kms. Thousands of stores line each corridor. Everything is available, from spices to textiles to Chinese manufactured rubbish. A lot of the sellers spoke great English and they would pull us in and ask about our travel and what we thought of Iran. In most cases the interest was legitimate, and not just an attempt to push wares.
Our accommodation in Mashhad was a single room self-contained apartment that Hamid had organised on the fly (within our budget). Hamid and Alex shared the living room. While relaxing with a few teas the most interesting group conversation centred around dating - how do couples organise and execute it? Hamid explained that in Iran there is an equivalent to Tinder, and if a young couple want to enjoy themselves the government has an agency that grants short marriages, from one hour to three months, which expire at the end of the term. The couple can legally date in public, and in private do other dating things, without retribution from police or family. Without the official short marriage certificate the female would be severely punished for having intercourse - banished from the home in more modern cities or stoned to death in more traditional rural centres.
During our stay in Mashhad agreement was reached between world powers and Iran on the nuclear deal framework. Every TV was tuned into watch the Minister of Foreign Affairs make the announcement. There was partying in the street to celebrate the pending lifting of sanctions. It was great to be in Iran during this event and to better appreciate what this means for the people.
Mashhad to Tabas
Into the desert! We convoyed out of Mashhad at 5 am to avoid traffic and to also make some miles before the heat of the day. However, we needed fuel and all the stations weren’t serving. We learned that fuel can only be served if the government controlled "fuel card" system is active. The government had remotely deactivated fuel cards for residents of certain areas, including Mashhad and surrounds. We understand that the system was deactivated to restrict movement and make it harder for opponents of the nuclear agreement to group and potentially revolt. Almost at our maximum fuel range we managed to find a service station well outside of Mashhad that was active.
On route to Tabas we rode through a landscape of arid mountains which transitioned into desert about half way through the morning. The heat was intense - 45 deg. We stopped at a small town about 150 km northeast of Tabas and got swamped by a crowd of locals interested in us and our bikes. Locals are only legally allowed to have motorcycles with an engine capacity of 250cc (or less) and our bikes looked gigantic compared to their rides.
The heat increased as we entered Tabas - 50 deg. The streets were deserted. It was like riding into a wall of hair dryers. Our eyes itched from dryness. When we parked at our hotel Alex used his centre stand and the bike sunk an inch into the melted asphalt.
Once the heat subsided at dusk we took a car ride out of town to enjoy tea and watermelon under the stars. Good times.
Tabas to Yazd
Continuing across the Dasht-e Kavir desert on route to Yazd we came across the remains of two American choppers. The choppers collided mid-air after a failed attempt to rescue 55 American diplomats held hostage in the American Embassy in 1979 as part of the United States’ Operation Eagle Claw. The choppers, and the crash site, have been maintained by the Iranian government for propaganda purposes. The Iranian government promotes that both choppers were shot down by Iranian forces. This seems unlikely given the condition of the machines.
Few cities have adapted to their environment like Yazd, and consequently it has real character. With the Dasht-e Kavir desert to the north and the Dasht-e Lut desert to the south there is no escaping the heat. The town has adapted to its surroundings by building thick walled mud brick homes that sufficiently insulate the interior, wind towers that funnel cooler air down into the buildings and underground aqua ducts that feed naturally cold water into the basements of the old town homes.
Our accommodation was in the centre of old town in an evocatively converted mudbrick madrassa. There was a fine courtyard that was sheltered from the sun with a large "pool" in the centre. When we arrived we were scorched from the hot ride and noticed several kids swimming in the "pool" so Alex and Todd decided to hop in. Little did we know that the "pool" was actually just a large fish pond. The owners and other guests had accepted the kids swimming but seeing us in the pond in our jocks (Alex) had them in hysterics. Straylia mate!
Walking the streets of Yazd at dusk was a highlight. We climbed to a rooftop and surveyed the surrounding mosques with their blue tiled domes, towering minarets and the forest of badgirs (air towers). In the alleys we visited a few traditions carpet and silk shops where traditional weaving methods, using antique looms, are still practised. If we'd had a spare USD 5,000 we could have picked up a small silk carpet to hang on the wall at home.
Our full day in Yazd was spent developing an understanding and appreciation of one of the world oldest religions - Zoroastrian. On the outskirts of town is the Yazd Tower of Silence. The "Towers" are two open top circular structures constructed on the knoll of a natural ridge. Up until a recent government ban it was a Zoroastrian practise to carry the dead up to the Tower and leave the corpses uncovered so that birds could feed and carry away the persons "soul". Skeletons lay scattered beneath a thin layer of gravel that the government has spread to discourage the vultures.