Into the Unknown: Iran (Part Two)
Yazd to Shiraz
With the heat of the day becoming less intense the further we travelled southwest the riding became much easier. A random highlight on this leg of the journey occurred at a highway rest stop. As usual we were surrounded by a crowd of blokes interested in the bikes, looking at the country stickers on Todd's panniers (a work of art) and asking lots of questions in Farsi (which we are obviously fluent in). Suddenly the situation escalated when one bloke pulled out a large banner and gestured for us to pose for a photo with it in front of our bikes. The banner was in Farsi, and looked like an ISIS flag, and we were a bit hesitant. Luckily no men in hooded black cloaks appeared. After a bit of pointing and gesturing we realised that the banner was a promotion for a motocross track across the highway. We agreed to the photo with a laugh. We were also invited to have a lap on the track. We politely declined as the KLR's would have only torn the place up.
Shiraz and Persepolis
Shiraz, the heartland of Persian culture for more than 2000 years, and the home of the wine of the same name, was sensational. We had two days to explore the city and to visit the nearby world heritage listed Ancient capital of Persepolis.
Persepolis in English literally means "City of Persians", and was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire from 550–330 BC. Persepolis is only a 30 minute drive northeast of Shiraz and for a change we travelled out via car with our guide.
The earliest remains of Persepolis date back to 515 BC. It exemplifies the Achaemenid style of architecture which I studied in senior art but can unfortunately recall nothing of.
Walking up the monumental staircases, under grand archways, past intimidating statutes and intricate reliefs it was easy to grasp just how magnificent this city once was. The reliefs in particular are in remarkable condition. Some sections appear to have been chiselled only yesterday. The preservation of the site, and the works of art crafted more than 2000 years ago is thanks in part to natural forces. The city was lost to history for centuries under a blanket of sand dunes and dust. It was only rediscovered in 1930 with major excavations exposing the magnificence of the city once again.
For perspective, and courtesy of Wikipedia, The Achaemenid Empire, which at its greatest extent, included some of the modern territories that we have recently traversed; Iran, Turkey and much of the Black Sea coastal regions, all of Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and much of central Asia including Afghanistan. Outside of our route the empire also included Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, all significant population centres of Ancient Egypt as far west as Libya, Thrace-Macedonia and Moesia, northern Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Oman, China, and the UAE. In total the Empire encompassed around 8 million square kilometres across three continents making it the largest empire in the ancient world.
To top off the afternoon we stopped off at the rock tombs of Naqsh-e Rostam. The four tombs are chiselled high up a vertical cliff face and are believed to be those of Darius II, Artaxerxes I, Darius I and Xerxes I but this is apparently still debated.
Our second day in Shiraz was marred by a few small conflicts but finished wonderfully. In the morning we had a small dispute with our guide regarding room rates. We had paid USD 75 per night via our guide but noticed that the published rates were actually USD 56. It was not common to see room rates in English. The difference was refunded and we are still unsure where the misunderstanding originated. The result of the dispute was that we had to organise our own accommodation for Esfahan and Tehran. No big deal. The second conflict is comical in hindsight. While exploring the streets we met a friendly English speaking university student who walked with a serious limp after colliding with a car on the busy streets of Tehran weeks earlier. He offered to show us the view from the top of his Uni and we accepted. The view was impressive. Next he offered to show us the main mosque in Shiraz. At this point he had invested a good one and a half hours with us and things started to smell fishy. The con became obvious when he claimed that he'd donated a large amount of money at the mosque on our behalf and wanted reimbursement. We had a shouting match in a barbershop of all places and he stormed out with the equivalent of a few dollars. In hindsight the tour was pretty good and we'd have been willing to pay a fair amount for his time if he had not tried to con us.
Our afternoon was a complete turnaround, with a number of memorable experiences. The barbers, who'd witnessed the dispute with the conman, did an amazing job trimming Zane’s beard. A win for Zano. After the cut we were keen for shisha and the barbers directed us towards a nearby back alley where we found a great local tea house / shisha den. We ordered a pipe and mingled with the locals. At the end of the session we had a collection of 10 pipes or more from locals who had merged onto our table to share their favourite smoke and to hear our stories. After the smoke we stumbled light headed out onto the main street and at the next door down into this fabulous underground restaurant. The meal was perhaps the best we'd had in Iran and the experience was complemented by some local live music. The bands leading musician was a master of the Santur, an ancient Persian string instrument, and he strummed the seventy two strings with passion.
The only thing missing from the Shiraz experience was wine. Alcohol is forbidden, even for tourists. Wine is still produced in Shiraz but is only for consumption by government officials.
Iran's number one tourist destination. Some call Esfahan "half the world" because of its beauty and historic ambience. This is probably a slight exaggeration, but none the less, the leafy tree lined boulevards, immaculately landscaped Persian gardens and lit up bridged, and collection of historical Islamic buildings made for an interesting two days of touring. The highlights for us were the Kakh-e Chehel Sotun (Palace), Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah (Mosque), the Naqsh-e Jahan Square and the Pol-e Si-o-Seh Bridge and surrounding parklands.
The Kakh-e Chehel Sotun, built in the Achaemenid style with a large columnar porch, contains a rich collection of frescoes. The frescoes are on a massive scale, from archway to ceiling, and portray life in the 16th century. The scenes of great battles, visiting dignitaries and the extravagance of palace life are extremely complex and detailed and would have taken years to create.
Even after mosque overload the Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah was spectacular. Inside the sanctuary shafts of light filter in through the circular bank of windows at the base of the dome and highlight the extraordinary motifs that adorn the walls. The mosque was built for the Shah's harem, who were apparently always late for "service", and the windows, of which there are twenty four, act as a sundial.
The Naqsh-e Jahan Square is the second largest square on earth and is only surpassed by Tiananmen Square. Whilst appreciating then square we heard "this must be the Queenslanders!" In a familiar accent. A group of doctors travelling the same route as us, but in reverse, had spotted the QLD rego plates on our bikes the previous evening and put two-and-two together when they saw Alex's Akubra. We shared some experiences and tips from Tajikistan and Mongolia and parted ways with best wishes.
In the afternoon and evening, without the option of having a beer, when walked Pol-e Si-o-Seh Bridge and the surrounding parklands. I will let our photos convey the scene (we have heaps). During the walk we had a few laughs. Lots of people have sticking plasters on their noses. Our guide informed us that they had had nose jobs. Apparently nose jobs in Iran are trendy and are considered a sign of wealth. So much so that people wear bandages even if they haven’t been under the knife. We fooled around on outdoor exercise equipment, which is everywhere in Iran, and engaged in some conversation with locals. One local lass said that Zane was 'very beautiful' and giggled uncontrollably.
When we mounted our bikes to depart Esfahan we discovered that every switch, dial, button had been pressed, turned or adjusted. We had parked in secure parking but obviously the bikes had attracted the attention of locals.
Just a massive city. Twenty million people crammed into a space the size of greater Sydney. We were nervous about riding into the city centre and our concern was justified. Traffic was horrendous. We had deliberately delayed our entry into Tehran till early evening to avoid the traffic but this seemed to make no difference. The most confusing aspect of driving in Tehran is the relative disregard paid to traffic lights and lanes. People just go whenever and wherever. Motorbikes would ride up the wrong side of the road. The most rebellious riders tended get the "green" light. After a lot of push and shove we arrived at our accommodation hot and bothered, but alive and in one piece. Again for perspective, across the trip Alex had developed a taste for dessert and the nearest ice creamery was across the road from our hotel. However, the prospect of crossing the road was so scary he decided against it.
Our free day in Tehran was spent doing chores, and our hotel was nearby the "automotive district" which made things easy. Shopping in Tehran is divided into districts - For example; one block does wedding dresses, the next block does DSLR cameras and the next sex toys (joke - just checking you're still paying attention). Everything automotive was available. Zano purchased a couple of mirrors to replace his that had been smashed by kids in Almaty. Alex collected a new rear tyre that he had ordered in Tajikistan. Alex had been running different tyres to Todd and Zane (Continental TKC80's - knobbies) and he achieved significantly less mileage and hence needed to replace tyres mid journey. In hindsight perhaps an inappropriate tyre choice. The ordering of the tyre was facilitated by Fastos Group and Pirelli who in support of our journey supplied the tyre at cost (USD60). Many thanks to Masoud Gholami at Fastod and Heidi Richard at Pirelli. If anybody ever needs any motorcycle products on route through Iran I highly recommend contacting Fastos.
The Caspian Coast - Bandar-e Anzali and Astara
The Caspian coast was calling so we left the chaos of Tehran behind and made tracks for the "tropics". Our guide had asked us if he could bring his family along for the last leg and we figured the more the merrier.
First stop was Bandar-e Anzali, a popular holiday destination for Iranian families (especially from Tehran) on the southern rim of the coastline. After months of arid landscapes our anticipation for the beach was high. Unfortunately Banzuli was a letdown. The sand and the sea were brown and the beaches are littered with rubbish. One highlight from Banzuli was dinner with Hamid and his family at a famous local restaurant. The restaurant is in the canals behind the town and is accessed via boat. During dinner we noticed a young couple dining who were clearly on a date. We caught the same boat back to the mainland. When the couple parted ways they formally shook hands and drove off. We had a bit of a laugh at this cultural difference.
Luckily for us the cabbie that was arranged to take us home drove like a lunatic. We would not understand why this was lucky until the next morning when, well ahead of schedule, Hamid knocked on our door. He explained that he'd been robbed. The thief had broken into his rental accommodation and taken all his money and his wife’s jewellery. Hamid awoke when the thief was in the house and chased him out. Hamid was able to identify the thief as one of the wharf assistants from the previous evening who had obviously trailed him back to his accommodation. If our cabbie hadn’t driven like a manic, and made it absolutely impossible for somebody to follow us, we would have received the same treatment.
On route to Astara we passed a number of memorable sights. The tea fields of Fuman in the foothills of the Gilan hinterland was a relaxing place for smoko and a hot brew. The mountain village of Masuleh was worth the detour. At least a millennium old, the village clings precariously to the side of a cliff. One man’s deck is his lower neighbour’s roof. The view from the top of village is magnificent and is captured in our selection of photos. Gilsn beach, that we visited on route to Astara, was perhaps the nicest beach we'd seen but swimming was not permitted- government control. At this point we adhered to this rule but our compliance didn’t last very long. While we sat and watched the water an old local man called Todd over to say hello. They shared a traditional shisha and tea and Zane later joined. Not a word was spoken in English. The old man offered some fresh fruit but made a fuss when the core of an apple was not eaten. When the old man wasn’t looking the core went over Zane's right shoulder.
Astara, a border town between Iran and Azerbaijan and also another major holiday destination for Iranians, was a significant improvement on Banzuli. The water was clear and the beach was tidy. The only problem - swimming was banned in the nicest sections and permitted only within enclosed and separate areas for males and females. Alex flaunted this rule and went for a swim in "open" water. The "life guard" (aka beach police) protested from the water’s edge and Hamid did not look very impressed. In the afternoon we went to a private beach and had a dip. Hamid’s family joined us and we played some beach volleyball and swam without being hassled by authorities. Good times.