Iran #4 – Tehran to Mashhad.

Two more weeks in this beautiful country, and we’ve visited the pearl of Iran, cycled across the desert, met some more wonderful people, had an attempted robbery standoff in a field, and a long ride through the champagne desolation to Mashhad.

Sabine and I had spent far too much time in Tehran, awaiting visas and visiting embassies. I don’t believe I’ve ever visited so many in my life. While waiting for our Tajik and Chinese visas, we decided to get out of the city and take the bus to Isfahan, 400km south. Isfahan is the pearl of Iran, with some of the most magnificent mosques and squares in the country. For a period of time, it was the capital of the country. Labourers were brought in from various places to built absolutely ostentatious mosques, bridges, and squares. We had planned only a short visit in this city, however we ended up staying for three full days as there was just too much to see.

The pearl of the city is surely Naqsh-e Jahan Square, or Imam Square as it’s now called. A lot of the places in Iran have had their names changed after the 1979 revolution, but the old names still stick. This park is the second largest in the world, with Tiananmen square in China being the largest. The park at the centre of this square is fantastic, with fountains and ice cream shops everywhere. A lot of Iranian families turn up to picnic here and the place seems to be packed every evening.

Children playing in Naqsh-e Jahan Square, Isfahan

The imam mosque sits at the end of this square…

Imam Mosque, Isfahan

The hostel we stayed at was host to many of the other tourists we’d already met in Tehran. Most tourists here seem to be in the same predicament of waiting for visas.

Having a smoke with other tourists.

Imam Mosque, Isfahan

The following days we wandered around the city exploring the various mosques and bazaars. The bazaar in this city is ridiculously huge, being one of the largest in the middle east. We wandered around for half a day in there, yet I’m sure we didn’t see all of it. The bazaar itself is 17km long and is thankfully covered with a permanent roof to keep out the heat.

The seven spices

The spice bazaar.

Hijab models

I even found Canadian underwear in the bazaar….strange.

Canadian underwear in IRAN!

After we’d paraded around the bazaar for several hours, a carpet vendor invited us in for tea. Should have known better. Out came the carpets, and a 60 minute lecture on their significance. I did learn something useful… goat wool will keep the scorpions and the snakes from crawling under your rug. This is why some of these carpets are bordered by the thin layer of the wool on the exterior. However, I can’t complain too much. Some of his rugs were very nice. I guess they would have to be if you were to drop two or three thousand dollars on one.

Persian rugs

Persian rugs

I should be putting some of this on the exterior of my tent when we cross the desert.

The bridges across the river in this city were also built in an elegant manner. Si-o-Seh bridge is a great example of this. It was build by Armenians from Jolfa, those marginalized Christians who have been living in Iran for a couple centuries. It’s spectacular at night…

Si-o-Seh bridge, Isfahan

Si-o-Seh bridge, Isfahan

As I mentioned a month ago, Iran is experiencing somewhat of a drought. The river that runs through the city is completely dry. I never did find out where the city gets its water…

The river runs dry.

We also took the time to visit Chehel Sotun Palace, which was built during the reign of the old Shah Abbas II. The name means the palace of forty pillars.

Chehel Sotun Palace

The entrance to the palace is a set of fractured mirrors. They were brought from Venice, and damaged on the way, so the Shah had them make kind of collage.

Mirrors from Venice

Venitian mirrors.

Inside the palace, there are a bunch of marvellous paintings from the time of Shah Abbas. They depict the Shah having a picnik with the Uzbeks…

The Shah welcomes guests.

King Shah Abbas welcomes King Nader Khan of Turkestan.

Our next stop on the bus would be Yadz, a small ancient village in the middle of the desert, another 300km south of Isfahan. Yadz is likely one of the most ancient cities in the world the old town is 2500 years old. The city is marked with bagdirs, wind towers which serve to cool the building in those 50C summer days. They are usually situated over water reserves, cooling the air further. I’ve found it very strange that they are not found everywhere in the country, as you’d think a country which is 2/3 desert would be abundant in their construction.

Yadz Bagdirs

Bagdirs, Yadz

Impressive construction in Yadz also includes the Amir Chakmak complex.

Amir Chakmaq Complex, Yadz

You can climb on to the roof of this complex for a small fee, and have a good view of the city.

Amir Chakmaq Complex, Yadz

It’s worth a wander in the old city. Considering you’re wandering around streets that are 2500 years old, it’s difficult to appreciate it, and easier to get lost. There is no north-west-east-south, the streets wind in every which way. There’s nothing quite like getting lost in a desert city when it’s 40 above. You don’t forget you’re in the middle of the desert.

Yadz old city

Yadz old city

Yadz old city

Bogheh-e-dav Davazdah Emam

Yadz Bagdirs

Waiting around for something.

The rans’ and the stains’ are strange in that you meet the same travelers again and again in different places. We had met three crazy brits in Tabriz several weeks earlier. They are the fine young lads driving a taxi from London to Sydney, across some of the roughest places on the planet. We met them again in Yadz. They had planned to pass through Baluchistan in the south of Iran to Pakistan. That border crossing into Pakistan requires that you’ve provisioned your visa ahead of time. It turns out that you can only do this in your home country at the Paki embassy, or of all places, in Dubai. So when we arrived in Yadz, we found one of the brits waiting on the other two who had flown to Dubai to get their visa. Paul had busied himself preparing their taxi for the journey across Baluchistan. To be sure I haven’t underwritten the difficulty of what they are attempting to do, I must emphasize the police escort they will have for 1500km across the desert. Baluch is a stronghold for separatist rebels. While his friends were gone, Paul busied himself covering the decals of his sponsors. We found this slightly hilarious. They are going to cross the Taliban desert in this wagon, hoping to not be conspicuous. I’m sure they won’t stand out at all….

We find the Brits again....2000km later.

Our last morning in Yadz we spent visiting the towers of silence. They are Zoroastrian temples for the dead. These are the towers where the dead are taken care of. It’s similar to the misrepresented Tibetan ritual of feeding the dead to the birds. The dead here are left to decompose in the elements in the life threading heat of the desert. The Zoroastrians are a minority in the middle east that worship the sun and fire, so more or less pagan in the eyes of Islam. They believe that the dead must be decomposed organically, not to pollute the earth with their bad intentions. This is the reason the dead are left to decompose in the sun. There are two towers of silence… scarcely rising above the desert…

Zoroastrian towers of silence

Zoroastrian towers of silence

There is a small village below where preparations are made for the dead. One can only imagine that carrying a corpse up these hills in the desert requires more than a little effort.

Towers of silence, Yadz

Since the Islamic revolution, the dead are no longer allowed to decompose out in the open, so they are not buried in a cemetery at the foot of the towers of silence. Graves consist of a concrete encasement such that the bodies do not pollute the desert.

Zoroastrian modern cemetary.

Somehow, part of me finds it ironic that some of us should worry about polluting the earth in death, when we do such a good job in life. Scott Weiland put it right. You can’t get to heaven on Tuesday. For that matter, I’m not sure you can get there any other day 🙂

Sabine and I had a great time trying to catch the bus back to Tehran. We’d decided that we’d better go back and make sure we had all of the visas for the ‘stans. A bus that was supposed to leave at 3pm, doesn’t leave until 5pm, which stops are every small village along the way with a bus driver who seems over anxious to make up his time to get to Tehran on time. He drops us off on the side of the freeway near the bus stop at 1am. Perfectly middle eastern time. Opportunistic taxi drivers catch us on the road at this time and we get a lift back to the hotel. It’s 1am, bartering is not really much of an option. We were unfortunate to arrive early, as the day we planned to visit the embassy was a national holiday. Most of the embassies were closed. So we would have to wait another 3 days in smoky smoggy Tehran anyway. In those three days, we were well accomplished at accomplishing nothing. When it’s 40C every day, there’s not much you feel like doing, especially when the hotel is located in the auto part section of the city.

When we finally manage to leave Tehran on the 3rd of July, 6am when it’s still 30C. The embassies we needed to visit were on the way out of town, so we profited of this advantage. I managed to get my visa for Tajikistan, and apply for my Turkmenistan visa.

Leaving Tehran was a grey hair producing event. The departure included a stint on the main highway, avoiding Paykans and Iranian motorists who seemed intent on killing us. I found the end awfully too close when an old car cut me off on the freeway and forced me off the road with the bulk of it’s white evil. It’s a terrifying experience when a car hits your panniers and bike as you’re rolling down the freeway at 30km. I’ve concluded that this Iranian impatience is a manifestation of their dismay with their government on the road. It seems to be the only explanation for aggressive driving where the people are otherwise the most friendly on the planet.

Nothing could have prepared us for the night that would follow. We aimed to wild camp 50km out of the city, far enough from the villains and nefarious citizens that would cause us grief. So I thought.

We set up the tent in the middle of the desert, a couple hundred meters from the road. Thinking we were somewhat discreet there was little concern. Within 15 minutes, a young man was discovered skulking along the trees bordering our tent. We’d obviously been spotted earlier. The young man and his friend came back shortly on a motorcycle and seemed quite friendly at first. It’s hard to decide who is friend and who is foe in Iran. Despite my bad gut feeling, I’d concluded that these two particular individuals were interested in foreigners as the rest of the Iranians. I fed them, made them chai, smoked cigarettes with them, and generally shot the breeze. This went on for a couple hours, and around midnight they brought out some crack. They advised us that we shouldn’t sleep here, as we may be robbed. How ironic. This is about the time that sinking feeling in my stomach wouldn’t go away. Losing confidence in these two individuals quickly, they told me that I could safely have a nap and they’d take care of things. Yeah… sure. When they discovered that the second cyclist in the tent was a woman, the younger man kept asking if he could have a round with my woman, like it was her honor or mine that was for sale. Despite my reproach, the young man took advantage of my lack of attention and gave Sabine a handful through the fabric of the tent. This was the moment when everything went off the deep end. Asking the two to leave, they clearly weren’t going to leave. So I was resolved to sit there and watch everything until they did. In hindsight, I didn’t pressure them enough to leave when they assaulted Sabine. Strangely, had they left at this time, they would’ve made away with some of my possessions. Within a couple minutes, I realized the disappearance of my video camera. This was quickly resolved with an aggressive neck wrenching of one the thieves, and a little lively slapping him about. It took only 5 minutes or so for my camera to re-appear. At this point, the adrenaline was coursing throughout my veins. I soon realized that my gps had also grown feet. A quick search of the two crackheads in the desert revealed that they’d grown smarter and thrown it into the field with the aim of retrieving it later. No thief is as courteous as an Iranian thief. When they informed me they would leave on the motorcycle, a knife wielding adrenaline pumped Canadian informed them (as politely as possible), that they should sit the fuck down until I find everything. I believe only an Iranian thief would oblige to this kind of demand. It took two hours of yelling in Farsi, punctuated only by a quick look in my dictionary for words I wanted to assault them with. Unfortunately, words such as donkey and prostitute did not exist in my lonely planet dictionary. I feel compelled to write them and advise them to include stronger language. I felt oddly accomplished I was able to understand their Farsi and take them face to face on their shitty attempted robbery. Overcoming the older man with a large stick, I was able to recover my gps. They tried to reconcile our grievances while they tried to hide my stolen opinel knife. It’s a rather strange experience to wield a knife and demand your other knife back, knowing full well it can be wielded against you. However, when there is that much adrenaline coursing through your veins, logic takes a new route of rationality. Thinking I’d recovered everything, a somewhat sullen thief still would not leave. It was now 7am, and the sun was rising over the 5600m Damavand I’d hoped to climb. More than annoyed I was missing the beauty of it all, I ushered them off. They then tried to pretend I’d broken their motorcycle in my havoc search for my gps. Now I wish I’d set the dam thing on fire. Or at least cut the fuel line. These two clowns rode off with my headlamp, the only item they succeeded in lifting. If you’re someone like Mr. Chad Knight, I’m sure you will understand the complete satisfaction of winning over someone who has tried to take advantage of you. (Police officers, thieves, airlines…) Packing everything up, we rode into the next village where we knew the thief lived. In some strange twist of fate, the first person who stopped knew the thief from the photo on my camera, even offering to bring us to his home. Instead of risking that kind of conflict over a cheap headlamp, we opted to filed a police report with the locals. The police became dismayed at my showing of these photos to every villager I could find, and impolitely told me to stop. At this point, everyone in the village knew the culprit, and my goal had been accomplished. Although I’d not won 100%, I’m quite sure this young mans life would soon become a lot more difficult. So throughout the whole experience, the 6 hour high on adrenaline was worth the 50 dollar headlamp.

Given this experience, I must stress this fact. You can be robbed by some scum sucking crackhead in any country, and it’s not at all representative of Iran. If you’ve troubled yourself to read my blog, please do not be discouraged to travel to Iran. This flavor of robbery can occur anywhere. 99% of Iranians are the most wonderful people you will ever meet in your short existence on this thin film of life. All of the villagers I met soon after were unthinkably embarrassed and sympathetic to our cause. Iranians are sensitive to anything that will tarnish their reputation internationally.

The following morning, an adrenaline pumped Jeremie and Sabine arrive in Rudehan. We stopped at a gas station in town, and were pleasantly referred to the cousin of the owner, Hamed and Shahnoosh. Hamid invited us into his home and offered us some food and a place to take a nap. Having not slept in more than 30 hours, it was one of the best naps I think I’ve ever had.

Supermarket cycling.

The following day, they took us out to Mt. Damavand and the hot springs on the other side. We spent most of the day at the hot springs, and continued in the evening. Thank you very much Hamed and Shahnoosh. That was a wonderful experience after the former bitter experience.

Hamid and Shahnoosh.

We had no idea that the road down the Caspian sea would be so terrible. Hamed had mentioned something about a lot of tunnels, but I hadn’t given it much thought. It turns out there are 20 tunnels, some of them 2km long, on a road with heavy traffic. As many of the vehicles are pre 1979, most of them pollute very badly. The tunnels don’t seem to have ventilation, and the fog of pollution can reduce the visibility to 10 meters in there. Most of the tunnels don’t have lights and it’s a terrifying event when you can’t see the ground or the walls, and only the oncoming headlights.

Sabine and I cycled together to Sari, the next big city on our way to Mashhad. There, she became ill and took the bus to Mashhad. I had a tough time deciding if I should take the bus and skip my ride across the desert. There’s that little stubborn part of the brain that a lot of cyclists have which generally forbids them from hitching a ride. Hell, if I’ve ridden 20,000km, I want to have ridden all the way. The bus driver wanted 15,000 toman (13CND) for her to take the bus. When I mentioned I wanted to come, the price for two people and two bicycles suddenly changed to 70,000 toman (64CND). To hell with you bus driver, I’ll ride my bike there. The incredulous look on his face was priceless.

It is 700km from Sari to Mashad. As Sabine would be waiting for me in Mashhad and my visa running out, I wanted to cover the distance as quickly as possible. I would wake up every morning at 4am, get on the bike by 5am, cycle 100km until noon, stop for a siesta in the 40C heat, get back on the bike at 5pm, cycle another 50km until dusk, and repeat. I managed to cover 700km in 4 days, with an epic 230km covered in a single day to Mashhad.

Scenery to Mashhad.

Along the way, I spent the afternoon with a fine young man named Seyyeb in Fazal Abad. Upon entering his home, he showed me some photos of the other tourists he’d hosted. I was flabbergasted to discover he had hosted the same Italian I’d met in Rome last year, Pierro. He was with the traveling circus that rode from Europe to Beijing on tall bikes four years prior. The world seems unspeakably small.


Seyyeb works as a motorcycle mechanic. Since there are sanctions in this country, western motorcycles are next to impossible to obtain. So this guy builds them, decals and all. Imitation Suzukis and Kawasakis.

Seyeb and his homemade Suzuki.

He took me for a ride on one, cruising through the winding back roads at 130km. A bit scary. Just a bit scary.

He also took me for a drive up in the hills north of the Caspian sea. This is affectionately referred to as the Iranian jungle.

Village in the Iranian jungle, Manat.

Thank you for a wonderful afternoon Seyyeb.

Jeremie and Seyeb.

The landscape for most of the distance to Mashhad was simply desert. There are stretches of road with nothing for 60km at a time, which causes slight concern for water. It was usually +30C by 8am. Yet, there is beauty in nothingness which is hard to describe. It’s a kind of champagne desolation.

On the road to Mashhad

Champagne desolation.

So finally, after 10 days, 1000km, and a lot of wild experiences…Mashhad!

Arriving in Mashhad.

That’s about all for now. Next stops.. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Only another 1000km of desert to get to the roof of the world.