Shiraz to Esfahan via Ghalat and Persepolis
By the time we were leaving Shiraz, Iran was becoming more familiar. A few days after leaving Yazd we began to receive a lot less police harassment and our daily existence became less infuriating. I got somewhat used to wearing a hijab, although with Martha (dreadlocks) wanting to burst out, it was never going to be very comfortable. My attitude towards men who weren’t our hosts became quite wary and I tried to stick to the Islamic norms of not shaking hands with men or really looking at them directly. Whenever we needed help, I was extra sure to ask a woman (this is usually better anyway as they are less likely to pretend they know, when they don’t). Mostly people were extremely kind, stopping only to say “Welcome to Iran’, offer us a place to stay or give us food. After a rather intense beginning things settled and I certainly began to enjoy our time in the Islamic republic even more.
The next leg of our Iran journey saw us head towards the small village of Ghalat. This wasn’t exactly on our route but we had met a guy called Ali in the market the previous day who had invited us to stay at his home. He was a Qasqai, (pronounced cashguy) a traditionally nomadic people from this part of Iran. While he was no longer a nomad, members of his family were and he seemed like an interesting guy to talk to and spend some time with.
We cycled the short distance (around 50km) from Shiraz to Ghalat and saw some truly stunning examples of ‘muppet driving’. The Iranians just take bad driving to another level. Worse than the Chinese even. Once we reached Ghalat, we had entered somewhat of a paradise. We found ourselves in a small traditional village build into a hillside, all mud brick, stone and small alleyways with mountains all around. We climbed up on a hillside for a better view and enjoyed the last of the afternoon sun and the soft hues of the autumn colours around us.
Later Ali came and met us in Ghalat and we stored our bikes at his friend’s place in the village and he drove us the 12kms to his home. He lived in a typical Iranian village house, consisting of a large comfortable room with a gas heater and a few small rooms off the side. The toilet was outside, but what we couldn’t figure out was that there was also one inside, which we were allowed to use at night but not in the day. Also, the random steps to nowhere, another strange thing about some Iranian houses. We spent the afternoon drinking tea and chatting with Ali. He had taught himself English and was well read with a love of old books. It was interesting learning about his culture, although we found some of his reasoning grating. He justified a lot of things by saying “it’s in our culture”, usually when referring to women and their roles (cooking, cleaning, having children, not riding a bicycle). I respect culture and believe certain parts of culture should be protected and taught to the next generation, but just because it’s cultural and traditional, doesn’t make it inherently good. Basically he was using the excuse of culture to justify his patriarchal behavior and we found this extremely annoying. While he was fascinated by our adventure, I almost felt he didn’t approve of us at all. Like he was trying to be all liberal and open minded but really wasn’t. It was a strange but not a bad encounter.
The following day we had lunch at the house where our bikes had been left (possibly the best lunch ever) and then set off towards Persepolis. It’s lovely staying with families but it’s always nice to be on our own again as well. I feel like I need my personal freedom more in this country than any other. In a way camping in the desert just us three women is a big fuck you to the patriarchy of this country, in my mind at least. Women camping without men is almost unheard of. We have gotten really good at hiding, and that night was no exception. Just as it was getting dark we found a rather creepy group of sheds which appeared to be abandoned dove coops. We made the end room our home for the night, including building a lovely campfire.
Morning saw us cut back to the main highway and reach Persepolis by lunch time. These impressive ruins were once the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire and date back to 515 BCE. It was a fitting place for a picnic. After our usual bread, cheese, tomatoes and dates it was time to explore. Persepolis was impressive. By now I have seen quite a few bas reliefs but the ones at Persepolis are truly extraordinary in the way they have remained so well preserved. I will let the pictures do the talking.
By the time we had finished exploring the afternoon was turning chilly. As we were packing our bikes and preparing to leave, the security guard came over and offered us the use of one of those portable shed things. After some price negotiations we happily agreed. We were even brought a heater and a gas cooker to make dinner on. Plus we had access to toilets, electricity and water! Dinner followed by a film. Luxury.
The next day we rolled onto the highway to thumb a ride as we had already cycled most of this section coming down to Shiraz. It took 20 mins before a truckie pulled over. Bikes were heaved onto the back and secured. We took our place in the cabin with the driver and enjoyed the different view. This is Iran so everytime we went to through a police check Astrid and I hid and Barbara pretended to be Iranian, pulling her headscarf tightly around her face. Our driver ended up being one of those true Iranian gentlemen, stopping so we could buy bread and dropping us at a perfect picnic area. Later he came back with his wife because I had left my gloves in his truck. They both invited us to stay but we needed to keep heading north.
That night we went back to our old favourite of camping under a rail tunnel in the dessert. I remarked that this might be our last night camping together. Funny that it should start and end with a tunnel. Our woman desert cyclo gang has been awesome.
We pushed hard the following day along the shoulder of an increasingly busy highway and slept in room next to a mosque. No creeper here luckily. Probably lucky for the creeper. There would be no hesitation to defend myself again.
By early afternoon of the following day we had reached the outskirts of Esfahan, one of Iran’s largest cities. Astrid, being the champion navigator that she is, took us on the ring road around to the Zoroastrian ruins of a fire temple high up on a hill. We explored the beautiful ruins and gazed on the mass expanse of Esfahan before pedalling to our host’s place.
Hamid, our host was an absolutely gorgeous guy, full of life and the most amazing laugh. Over the next few days he cooked us wonderful Iranian dishes and showed us around his city. Although dissatisfied with the status quo, Hamid truly loved his culture and it was wonderful to learn more about Iran. We also made him a selection of our favourite dishes and we rarely made it to bed before midnight, preferring to stay up talking and laughing.
Sadly things must come to an end sometimes and eventually we needed to leave. Esfahan was where the cyclo gang was also going to separate. Barbara was going to continue north towards Tehran on her trusty bike Lola and we were taking the bus to Tehran, to fly home.
Back in Central Asia Astrid and I had began to discuss the possibility of going home for a visit. It was a difficult decision to make but a few things had begun to fall into place to make it feel like the right choice. We eventually bit the bullet and decided to do it, booking flights in and out of Tehran.
After hugging Hamid farewell (in his home, it would be totally forbidden to do this on the street) we cycled with Barbara to the bus station and then sent our awesome cyclo sister on her way. I am sure our paths will cross again one day soon.
It is always a little stressful trying to put a bicycle on a bus and is something I loath. The Iranians however are quite calm about this. And their buses are lovely! We were only charged around $3 for the bikes and served tea and snacks on our 5 hour bus ride into Tehran.
The Iranian capital is a concrete jungle. Traffic is a nightmare and infrastructure is poor. They finally have a metro but it’s not nearly enough. I feel like Tehran, in terms of infrastructure and aesthetics is one of those cities that just didn’t get it right. The people however are probably the least conservative in the country (in some parts of Tehran anyway) and we saw many barely on hijabs and were especially fond of the casual my hijab slipped off and I will leave it a few seconds before putting it back on that we saw. Men and women also seemed to associate more normally, which is something we had witnessed in all the big cities. For us, this was a flying visit to Tehran. We would be back in a few weeks to see more of the capital.
At the bus station we put our bikes back together and then began the arduous task of navigating to our host’s house. This was made extremely difficult by my i phone which has basically decided almost 2 years of hard living was not for it and it randomly turns off right when you need it most. We found somewhere to charge it, only to have it happen a second time and then refuse to turn on. Luckily we had Roozbah’s number and were able to call him from a toy shop (where they served us tea while we waited).
Roozbah is a quietly spoken guy who has been a friend to many a touring cyclist. He welcomed us to his families large, warm apartment where we spent the next day packing and trying to prepare ourselves for going home.
With our bikes safely stored at Roozbah’s we left at midnight to begin the 24 hour or so journey home that had taken us 20 months to cycle. Like most people that cycle rather than take a plane to the other side of the world, I am uncomfortable with the idea of flying and have become more so over the last year or so. However I do think planes are quite amazing and that it is a privilege that we can go home like this to visit our loved ones. I am trying not to see planes as a normal mode of transport, but rather an extraordinary one.
It was exciting to be going home and interesting to watch the Iranians on the plane. We hadn’t even taxied down the runway before women began to take off their hijab (we were not flying with an Iranian airline) and soon after take off the men were ordering alcohol. We happily took part in both these activities as well!
I won’t write much about our time at home. It did end up being the right decision for quite a few reasons and we are both glad we went. Seeing our friends and family was wonderful, although being home was unsetting in some ways. It was almost as if I slipped back into my old life. Everything was familiar. The same people, the same cafes, the same bars, but at the end of the day I couldn’t go back to Lewis street. Someone else lived in our room now, even though the house even smelt the same. This more than anything disturbed me. After a hectic few weeks it was time to say goodbye and head back to Tehran. We had managed to get another Iranian visa using Caravanistan for the code. As we didn’t have enough time to get a visa from Canberra we opted for an Airport Visa. This worked out fine. So, that’s the end of our first Iran adventure through the deserts. I will let Astrid continue with our route through northwest Iran towards Turkey.