Life in the Iranian Deserts

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Bardaskan to Yazd

I have really been struggling to write about Iran. It’s a country of extreme contradictions and a wide range of emotions for me. I hated and loved it. It drove me to the edge of my sanity and humbled me with it’s generosity. We had more problems with men than anywhere else (by a long shot) and the most gracious hospitality and generosity. Most of the Iranian people I met were absolutely wonderful. They are not religious extremists like a lot of the western media portrays. In fact, most people we met weren’t religious at all. Someone once said ‘we are a victim of politics,’ and yes, that often seems pretty accurate. The Iranians we met just want to get on with life, to choose whom they want to marry (or to choose to marry at all), to travel, hang out with their friends and find their place in this crazy world of ours. Sadly, they are often denied these basic rights by their government. Still, they often triumph too. Iranians live their live in their homes, where the police almost never reach them (we haven’t heard of the police coming into homes) and the rules of the state do not apply. Iran is changing, but I fear it’s too slow for the current generation, who mostly want to leave. I am not sure I will go back, but I am certainly glad I went.

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I woke feeling slightly morose on my 31st birthday. It couldn’t have felt less like a birthday. I missed my friends and family and felt overwhelmed by this new country.

Mina and her family were extremely reluctant to let us go but eventually they came to understand that we really needed to start cycling. They were so lovely. We were showered with gifts and fussed over and they made sure we had absolutely everything we needed. It’s true what they say about Iranian hospitality – it’s amazing. However, before heading to the open road there was one more thing for us to do. A publicity event at the local sports complex. We pedalled down there and were photographed and videoed for local media and given a trophy, which unfortunately we could not accept as it was too heavy. Astrid joked if it was edible we would have taken it. Tea and more photos followed and then finally we were allowed out onto the open road.

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The award we got from the lovely people in Bardescan

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Tea with the media and officials

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Taking my sweet time talking on the phone while the police wait nearby

Only we were not alone. The police had taken it upon themselves to escort us for ‘our safety’. For around 60 infuriating kilometres we had a truck full of policemen tailing us. Sometimes they were a few km’s behind, other times they would stop, wait for us to pass, then pass us and pull over again. Whenever we cycled by they would all stare at us intently. We are often a curiosity wherever we go, it’s part of cycle touring in these places but I was just not up for being harassed by the police again, no matter how good their intentions might have been. I already felt quite oppressed, given the intense nature of the last few weeks. All I wanted was to be alone in the desert with Astrid and Barbara, away from people. I felt at the edge of my sanity.  We tried to get rid of them and discussed how we would escape them in order to find a camp. I had visions of them trying to make us camp somewhere stupid because they thought the desert was dangerous. Even when we pulled off the road to get water from a village, they followed and tried to get us to go back out on the highway. We ignored them and took our sweet time (I even received a phone call from Australia and made sure to spend extra long on the phone) but they would not leave. Finally, driven passed the edge of my patience I yelled at them. I told them loudly “No police!!” and made emphatic hand gestures. To their credit they took it in their stride and finally left us alone.

I felt such relief. This country was making me crazy. I just needed to be away from people for a bit, to process the extreme contrasts of Iran.  We succeeded in finding a camp spot in the desert landscape, building a fire and drinking fake wine. The stars came out and it was beautiful. A good end to a trying day.

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Alone at last

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The sunsets after a day of frustration

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Happiness is a campfire in the desert under a clear sky

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Our awesome camp

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Desert sunset

The weather continued to be superb. Clear and cool we pedaled steadily towards our first destination of Yazd for the next week or so. The police continued to mildly harass us, driving by slowly and staring or stopping us in a town and questioning us about our employment, or who was paying for our trip. Or approaching us when we were trying to pee. Once a stupid officer tried to tell me my visa had expired. I pretty much told him he was an idiot and cycled off. Basically they just wanted an excuse to stop and question the foreign women on bikes. We are the entertainment after all. But for every frustrating interaction with the authorities, kindness counteracted it. One day some truck drivers shared their lunch with us. Another day a family invited us for tea. In a deserted desert town we could find no bread, so a travelling family cooked us a meal.

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Drink stop

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Desert cycling

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Distant camels

The towns we pedalled through had the most amazing buildings. Old ruins that were magical to explore and if they had been anywhere but Iran would probably have been museums, charging entrance fees. We consistently found great camps in the desert and would build a fire every night, drink cups of tea and try and to make sense of this country. This debriefing was invaluable as we all struggled with the inequality, hypocrisy and frequency of creepers (men who harassed us).

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A great camp in a dry river bed

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Another great desert camp

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Inside a ruin of a Mosque – may have slept on a dead guy

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Campfire in the Mosque ruin

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You could even climb onto the roof. Summer camping here would be amazing

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The morning light shines through

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Breakfast

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Outside the ruined Mosque

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The fairy and the salmon the morning

I guess it’s time to address this. I can’t write about Iran and not write about the issues we faced as three women cycling through this country. From other cyclist’s stories I felt like Iran would be some kind of paradise. That we could camp anywhere and enjoy endless hospitality. In some ways this is true. People are endlessly hospitable, although sometimes quite intense (it’s difficult to get to bed before midnight!). As for camping everywhere, as three women I would not feel comfortable doing this. And I don’t mean camping as such, I mean camping visibly, in public parks like people had suggested we could. Partly because of creepers and partly because we would attract so much attention and most likely the police would come and force us to go ‘somewhere safe’. So when we camped, we hid well. Also, perhaps a lot of the stories I had heard were from men or straight couples. Iran as a team of women was often filled with frustration, shouts, creeper stares, men pulling over and watching us cycle passed, approaching us if we stopped for a pee and a lot of condescending comments, sexism and patriarchal bullshit. We got really tired of the comment ‘where is the man?’ Being 3 women on bikes alone in Iran is so far outside of the cultural norm, it seemed to blow people’s brains.

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Sometimes the desert was salty

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Sometimes dunes

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More dunes

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Barbara cycling down an embankment to where we have found a spot to camp

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Another perfect sunset

And the dress code. For women not used to wearing a hijab, it was difficult to get used to always having an ‘outside of the house outfit’. You couldn’t just leave a hosts home wearing your normal clothes, assuming the host was okay to let you take your hijab off (most were). I need to say I actually have no problem with hijab as such. In Australia many women choose to dress this way, and why would I care about this? People in my opinion can wear what they want, as long as it’s their choice. What people choose to wear does not confront or affect me (unlike a certain Prime Minister). What got me about Iran was the hypocrisy. In the way I understand Islamic dress, both men and women are supposed to dress modestly. In Iran this is vehemently enforced for women but men could wear whatever they wanted. Tight skinny jeans and shirts were the norm. Sure, they couldn’t wear shorts, but that was about it. Loads of men wore tight t shirts. Women weren’t even supposed to show their wrists.  Enforce modest dress on men and I will shut up and wear the Hijab without complaint. But when I asked about this the answer I often got was women had to dress modestly because otherwise men might lust after them. Obviously, the responsibility of men’s reactions should fall on the woman. Sigh. I guess in the west we have a version of this too,  I mean how often is women blamed for being raped because of what she wears?

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Fight the creeper!

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Wild Dromedary

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The desert town of Tabas

It probably sounds like I am hating on Iran. I really don’t hate it. I guess I just want to reflect how I was feeling and how difficult and also contrasting I found it. For I could be thinking about all the things I just wrote about, cycling furiously through the desert, when a man would pull over and give me a pomegranate. Or someone would shout ‘welcome to Iran!’ Or insist on giving us all their sweets. Or bring us tea and dates. I met far more generous, respectful and delightful men, than I met arseholes. It’s truly a country full of the most intense contrasts.

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Shisha and lunch thanks to some truck drivers

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Cyclo ladies in the desert

By the time we neared Yazd we were all looking forward to some rest days. There had been somewhat of a misunderstanding about arranging a host but just as we considering camping in an abandoned building outside of Yazd we received a phone call and were invited to stay with a warm showers host (only in Iran can you text someone who then invites you to stay an hour later). It’s always wonderful to stay with people who actually cycle tour because they understand how exhausted one can be and we were thankfully allowed to go to bed early, which is not common in Iran.

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Exploring abandoned ruins in a desert town

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Up on the roof of the ruins we found this

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And this. Beautiful.

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Thanks for highlighting the slaughter house like a tourist attraction!

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The next morning our lovely host and his friend (both guys in their 20’s) accompanied us to the visa office to extend our tourist visas. Big mistake. Don’t take hosts to official places in Yazd (we hear it’s okay in other towns). The poor guys were grilled about how they met us and told they couldn’t invite foreign women into their homes and in fact couldn’t even talk to tourists without a license (WTF?). They were ordered to abandon us in the streets and never speak to us again. The official barely looked at us, even though he could speak English just fine. Our visa extensions were also rejected as we were too early. We had to try again in Shiraz. Barbara luckily could extend hers. The five of us left the place infuriated and one of our hosts turned around to say ‘and that is why I have to leave Iran.’ We suspect things are so strict in Yazd, not only because it is a conservative city, but also because the owner of the two cheap hotels in Yazd has complained about couch surfing (they don’t really know warmshowers) because it takes his business. He probably has a mate in the police. Anyway, we went back to the house, packed our gear and were guided to the cheap hotel in town. It was actually quite a nice place, a basic dorm and nice hang out area with moderately working wifi. We arranged to meet our new friends the following night. No, they were not abandoning us on the street, never to talk again.

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Night Mosque, Yazd

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Our dorm

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The courtyard in our hostel

We spent the first day in Yazd catching up on emails on the clunky wifi and drinking cups of tea. In the evening we walked around the ancient city, taking delight in the picturesque alleyways and beautiful, other worldly architecture. What we did not take delight in was the constant calling out, whistling and even duck noises the men made as we walked by. Sigh.

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Yazd by night

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The tower you can see is a wind catcher for the baking desert summers

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Steps to under the city..

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Yazd from the roof of our hostel

Relief however was at hand. For we had organised to meet another warmshowers host. Not to stay with, as they deemed it too risky, but to come for dinner. We caught a taxi to the outskirts of Yazd and entered another world. She was wearing a t shirt, he was wearing shorts, they had a pet dog they doted on and within the first half an hour we were offered homemade wine. We immediately felt comfortable and spent a delightful evening eating amazing food and discussing Iran, the culture, the politics and the life they led. As this was early on in our time in this country, we were thirsty for knowledge. Our hosts were Zoroastrians, the religion that dominated Iran before the Arab conquest bought Islam to Persia. Yazd is actually one of the main places Zoroastrians live. They believe in one God, Ahura Mazda and worship towards a light source. This eventually led to the development of fire temples but people are often confused, thinking they pray to the fire. It was extremely interesting to us learning about this other religion in the Islamic Republic. We talked well into the night and really had to drag ourselves away, it had been such a fascinating experience being able to talk openly and honestly in Iran.

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Yazd walls by night

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Wandering the alleyways

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Zoroastrian symbol on the fire temple

We spent another relaxing day in Yazd, exploring the fire temple, chatting to other travellers and reading. Astrid and I even managed a date at a tea house. In the evening we had tea with our hosts from the first night and chatted to them. Both are desperate to leave Iran. We would come to find this common in the youth of Iran.

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Tea House happiness

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In the Bazaar

Then it was time to get back on the road. Our route south towards Shiraz led us passed the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence on the outskirts of Yazd. This is where the people used to lay their dead. As Zoroastrians believe that you shouldn’t pollute the four elements (water, air, earth and fire) they used to leave the dead to be eaten by vultures. This was outlawed by the last Shah and they now bury their dead in cement coffins. The place felt kind of eerie and mysterious. We loved exploring this sacred site of this half forgotten religion.

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Zoroastrian Towers of Silence

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And this is where I will leave you as we head back out into the freedom of the desert towards Shiraz.

Loads of love

Jude

8 thoughts on “Life in the Iranian Deserts

  1. Wow! What an extraordinary adventure you have had in Iran. Frustrating for sure, but the hospitality sounds amazing. Gav says that Turkmenistan’s landscape and scenery is very similar to what you showed in your photos. Always lovely to read and see what you are experiencing. Love from Vita and Gavin xx

  2. I have heard from other people that Iran is nothing like how the western media portrays it but it’s unfortunate that women traveling alone is still such a new thing that it became frustrating. Good luck on the rest of your trip.

  3. Another extraordinary story of your travels. I can only imagine the frustrations you have faced and the joy of caring, hospitable, non-radicalised people. Once again your photos are exceptional, so beautifully captured. Thanks for sharing this amazing adventure. Love and big hugs Gilda and Graeme. xxxx

  4. HI Jude and Astrid what a journey through Iran especially your experiences in Yazd and how interesting to hear about the Zoroastrian religion love your photos,take care, all good wishes from Gwen.

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