Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

31 Jan 2013

Iran Overview

Posted by Will

I have lived in Iran for over 2 months and have already seen more than I could have possibly hoped. There are a number of reasons why I haven’t kept the blog running recently: internet quality, censorship and numerous other fun things to do are among them. I suppose I’ve thought: “I’ll save the blog for a rainy day”. There just aren’t any rainy days here.

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The most important reason for not keeping you updated is the possibility that what I write will either get me in trouble, get someone else in trouble or hinder my ability to get what I want (and need) from the authorities. Iran is a very friendly country, as I will explain later, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to watch what you say. I have comments and opinions but they’re best written in Central Asia. Even having a draft of something on my computer could be problematic in the worst case. Typing the name of someone who has helped me or hosted me whether published or unpublished would be an unnecessary risk. Even the preceding sentence may be unwise – it is illegal for a foreigner to stay in an Iranian’s house.

Yes, I know it all sounds very paranoid and yes there are thousands of tourists less cautious than I who get away with it all. But I’m an odd kind of tourist, cycling through politically sensitive zones who’s already put up his fair share of finger to the system. Forgive me for kissing and not telling … for now.

What I will tell though is a rough outline of my journey in Iran so far. The details should come later.

I have spent the largest chunk of my time in Isfahan. That’s where I am now. I arrived here near the beginning of December after cycling across the Zagros Mountains which run down the border between Iraq and Iran. I visited the beautiful cities of Marivan and Sanandaj, tucked between the snow-capped mountains and entirely Kurdish too. Entering Iran there wasn’t much of a culture shock at all. I remained in an entirely Kurdish speaking area with Kurdish customs and more delicious Kurdish food. What was a shock was exchanging money for the first time. In exchange for 50 USD I was handed two enormous bricks made up of blue 20,000 Rial notes. It took a rather awkward 10 minutes to count that the man had given me the correct money. The money didn’t fit in my pockets, let alone my wallet, so I had to stuff it in various parts of my pannier bags to get going.

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Some very hilly and snowy-mountain cycling later I arrived in Hamadan, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It’s also famous for being close to the largest water-cave in the world which regrettably I cycled by. From Hamadan onwards, the steep climbs disappeared, replaced by huge, dark, rocky plains as far as the eye could see. A little like a Mordor landscape, there are no trees here (at least at this time of year) and not many people either. Villages were a welcome rest for food, water and company.

People now spoke in Farsi, a language I was keen to get a grip on since I would be spending so much time in Iran. It turned out that without me knowing the Kurdish language had been gradually evolving into Farsi as I’d moved east meaning that I already knew some basic words. One to ten, for example, took seconds to learn. Languages, like people, tend to change gradually not suddenly as you move across a geographic area. As a tourist, especially a bicycle tourist, I’m a rare commodity in Iran and people have no hesitation to give up their time for me and trade me amongst their friends. I hardly spent a night in the tent during the 1000km from the Iran border to Esfahan and most of my food was cooked up by friendly locals.

The food in Iran is one of the highlights. Expect the most delicious rice you have ever tasted, soft but ever-evolving bread as you move through the country, numerous milk products (of which Ferini, a gloopy, palatte-cleansing delight mixed with sweet grape sauce, is my favourite), fresh fruit including surely the tastiest pomegranates in the world and Shirazi grapes, dozens of different nuts (think pistaccios), chicken kebabs, lamb kebabs, sheep kebabs, puddings and sweets and don’t forget the most famous ingredient of all: saffron! Saffron costs about 3 USD for 10g. I have tried it in targines, in puddings, in pancakes, with rice, with kebab and even in tea. Wander around the bazaar and inhale the taste and smell of the most exotic spices. Spent and hour with the friendly spice shop-keeper who will let you try all the colours of the rainbow for just a minute of your time. In a few sentences I can barely touch upon the marvellous taste and tradition of Iranian cooking.

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I reached Esfahan and have made this city, roughly in the centre of Iran, my base. I decided to hang up my bicycle for a couple of months while the cold weather swept over the barren landscape and the vast distances offered less pros than cons. Forgetting the bicycle would allow me to rest up, learn Farsi, get visas, explore a place in depth and build longer-term friendships as opposed to the transitory ones I am used to. I have even learnt a bit of Iranian cooking!

In the hiatus, I have visited all the tourist attractions in Esfahan. Imam Square is world-famous and rightly so with a huge mosque dominating one end and a smaller, perhaps even more beautiful mosque decorating another side. Esfahan has a number of palaces, not grand by European standards but exquisitely decorated. A rather sad sight is the dead river running through the middle of the city, its water having been stolen by greedy steel mills and dam projects. A lack of rain in recent years is also to blame. As one man told me: ‘the desert is reclaiming Esfahan’. Nevertheless, there are a few must-see bridges like Si-o-Se Pol with 33 perfectly symmetrical arches and the even more impressive Khaju bridge which is surely one of the most beautiful in the world. A pre-Islam fire-temple, a mosque that shakes, gardens stretching along the river full of old-men playing cards and ping-pong and a big Christian cathedral are other worthy claimants of a tourist’s attention here.

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Luckily for me though, I have come to know the place as more than just a tourist. I now have a grocery, dairy and bread shop where the owners say “hi” and people recognize me in the street by my red jacket and wave. Even the police have noticed my sticking around…

I have taken trips by bus to the city of Shiraz to the south, Kerman to the south-east and Yazd to the east. I had a wonderful host in Shiraz but apart from Hafez’s tomb and the stunning Vakil bath-house I was a little disappointed. I certainly wasn’t disappointed with Persepolis though which lies about 70km outside Shiraz. I spent the morning meandering around an ancient city underneath 20m high still-standing pillars and seeing sculptures that have stared into people’s eyes for over 2000 years. Some of the stones are so polished they reflect your face. Congratulations to Darius, Xerxes and co. for such a fine achievement. Only 5km away from Persepolis are the tombs of these great kings carved high up into the side of a cliff.

Another great host, this time in Kerman, made sure I didn’t miss out on the hidden treasures in Iran’s little-known and volatile south-east. It is a city known for its history but perhaps even more famous for the prevalence of opium. Almost the entire world supply travelling by land comes through Kerman as it is only a couple of hundred kilometers west of Afghanistan. The road I travelled (and hitch-hiked) is dubbed ‘the silk road of opium’. I saw the old bazaar, caravanserai, fire temple and bath-house in the city. Outside the city, I visited Shahzadeh Garden where a mountain river is diverted into a compound over a dozen small waterfalls all lined with trees. A palace stands at either end with white mountains providing the backdrop. It is no wonder it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I made a visit to the unique Kaloot desert: one of the hottest places in the world (once reaching a temperature of 67C) and where no plant, animal or insect can possibly survive. Rayen Castle was impressive too: an area of 22,000 square metres some of which dates back to the early centuries AD. I had the whole place to myself so spent the afternoon climbing, swinging and jumping over the ramparts and through the secret passageways. Walking back from the castle through the town of Rayen I have never felt so out of place. EVERYONE stopped what they were doing and stared at me and not with quite the same friendliness as in the Persian heartlands. I was close to border-country with Afghanistan and Pakistan: probably the most dangerous area in the world.

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So far, Yazd occupies top-spot in my list of favourite Iranian cities. It would probably come high up on my list of favourite world cities. It lies in the desert, windy and sandy, the historical part made mainly from crumbling straw and mud-brick. The alleys are thousands of years old and form a true maze of twisting passages, tunnels and dead-ends. At night it is particularly edgy as the way is only partially lit. There are dozens of abandoned buildings ripe for exploration and you can scamper over rooftops by making a pathway via steps, vaulting shoulder-high walls and edging round ledges. One can easily imagine Aladdin escaping from the palace guards or the Prince of Persia dancing his acrobatics here. The mosques in Yazd are famous and I spent some time walking inside and outside of them. I also found a gem of a hotel right in the centre of town. This restored traditional house gave me a bed and tasty breakfast for only 3 USD a night.

And this leads on to the economic situation in Iran which is great for the tourist and misery for the locals. The recent collapse of the local currency, mainly due to US-led sanctions, has meant prices for most things have trebled in the last year without any corresponding increase in salaries. In some places, bread is now twelve times more expensive than last year. Anything imported is ridiculously expensive relative to local wages. This includes most medicines, electronics and of course travel. On the flip-side, I can live the high-life for hardly any money at all. A slap-up meal costs about 2 USD, a hotel about 5 USD, petrol about 0.25 USD/litre, a city bus ticket 0.03 USD, coach travel 700km 4 USD. Average salary for an ordinary person not working in government is around 200 USD/month. A year ago that salary was worth 600 USD/month. Despite their economic woes and the causes of them, the Iranian people are on the whole very generous and have held no grudge against me for being British.

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So what reaction have I experienced when I say I am British? At first I was a little wary. When I arrived at police checkpoints the officers would greet me cheerfully until I showed them my passport at which point they would write my name and number down and get rid of me as soon as possible. Every now and again a person’s face and attitude changes when I say where I’m from but these are rare cases. Mostly people are curious and friendly and if they do disagree with British policy then they make a clear and correct distinction between me and my government. I view them the same. Ordinary Iranian people aren’t much like their government and therefore I don’t carry over any prejudice I might hold against the Iranian government into conversations with the locals.

I think citizens of the West should do the same. Do not imagine the Iranian people are well-represented by the Iranians we see on the news at home. I am afraid the view too many Western people hold about Iran is as warped and ultimately incorrect as the view of the West held by a tiny minority of brainwashed here. Normal Iranian people have a huge respect for Westerners. Far more respect than normal Western people have for Iranians. Furthermore, most people I’ve met here want to learn more about the West and Western people – they are curious. Most people in the West are happy to know about Iranian people as far as the news tells them and no further.

So there you have it – an update! Tomorrow, I will get back on the bicycle for what I expect will be one of the toughest episodes yet. I am attempting to cross the desert from Esfahan to Mashhad, a distance roughly 1200km long sometimes with gaps of up to 200km without re-supply points (both food and water). I have been told sandstorms are possible. Internet is unlikely. I don’t mind though so long as I see a camel. I really want to see a camel.

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14 Comments already on “Iran Overview”
  1. 10:45 pmpermalink
    31 Jan 2013

    Mohammad

    wish you luck dude

  2. 10:50 pmpermalink
    31 Jan 2013

    Andrew

    Will, this is one of the best pieces of writing I have read in a long while. Bravo. I sincerely hope that upon your return, if that ever happens, which I encourage it doesn’t, you publish a book of your travels, experiences and understanding of world order to show us what is truly out.
    You, by just being a genuine good bloke, and your writing, are inspired and inspire the traveller-explorer within.
    Go find yourself that camel.
    Andrew

  3. 11:16 pmpermalink
    31 Jan 2013

    Mumsy

    Well worth waiting for! Really interesting and so many great photos, well done. Take care on the next stage of your travels… xx

  4. 3:00 ampermalink
    01 Feb 2013

    Rob Gardiner

    Your blog was recommended to me a year ago and, I have to say, it is compulsive reading. You are a fantastic writer and I really admire your resilience, since I know how tough it is to travel alone. I visited Iran in 2010 and it is great to hear that you have a had a similar experience to me. Although, I found that even the police were incredibly friendly to me, but I guess that’s a sign of the times!

    Good luck with the rest of your travels!

  5. Will

    7:42 ampermalink
    01 Feb 2013

    Will

    Thanks all! I’ll savour your comments on the desert road to come.

  6. 7:50 ampermalink
    01 Feb 2013

    mike & Emma

    hi
    sent you a note through your contacts – thought i was making a comment – stupid boy!!
    If you get urge / feel the need stick it in the right place.
    We are travelling north up Mozambique coast will then loop into Zimbabwe for a bit – rainy and hot here so a bit of a contrast to your situation.
    Hambe ghale -Travel well as they say around here
    Mike & Emma

  7. 9:42 ampermalink
    01 Feb 2013

    Marion

    Well hello again Will! We have been waiting/wanting to have your news and what great news it was. We are all in awe, etc, etc. Send you lots and lots of love and safe riding. Marion

  8. 9:49 ampermalink
    01 Feb 2013

    Liv

    So good to hear from you- and more importantly hear you’ve been having such an amazing time! Good luck with the next leg xx

  9. 9:58 ampermalink
    01 Feb 2013

    Charles

    Remembering Michael Wood’s Footsteps of Alexander the Great and thinking of you. Another docu: Wheeltracks of William the (enter appropriate epithet here)! Go carefully xc

  10. 6:43 pmpermalink
    01 Feb 2013

    Rosie

    Brilliant post Will! I love the way you include the background knowledge behind it all as well. Really good luck with the desert. I hope you see a camal too as I want some David Attenborough style photos and videos :) xx

  11. 8:38 ampermalink
    02 Feb 2013

    Sarah, Guy, Toby and Edward

    So great to hear from you again after such a long while. What an amazing country and you write so brilliantly about it. XXXX

  12. 12:39 pmpermalink
    02 Feb 2013

    Luke Newham

    Another incredible insight in to the fantastic experiences your living at the moment mate – so good to read all about it! Honkois pictures as well. I’m picturing your red jacket being the equivalent of your hoodie in Uni – no wonder people are recognising you. Good luck with the camel x

  13. 10:13 pmpermalink
    03 Feb 2013

    James Down

    Great piece Will. Seriously impressive writing. We all wish you the best and of course, please keep yourself well and fit. Iran sounds so interesting and your in a part of the world where few experiences will ever match your current location. Have fun and all the best with the camel. Go get him.

  14. 7:56 ampermalink
    05 Feb 2013

    Kirsi, Antero, Salli and Maija

    Really happy to hear from you after a long break. It sounds like you have had really interesting moments and seen fine landscapes in Iran. Your photos are beautiful. Let’s hope you will meet friendly camels in the desert :)
    All the best from Finland and take care!