Downhill to the Persian Gulf
Shiraz – Bandar Abbas
After Shiraz, the scenery changed, and whilst it was still very arid, we often came across small oases featuring a bunch of palm trees and often a well to access the ground water. Farming relied heavily on irrigation, and throughout the desert we saw evidence of qanats, as well as circular cisterns that were used as water reservoirs before the advent of more practical pipes. Date palms became ubiquitous, and dates were now the gift of choice from the locals.||
Just in time for our first break after leaving Shiraz, we were flagged down by some men working in an ice cream store. They gave us huge portions of ice cream and filmed the whole event on their mobile phones. The hospitality continued at a fuel station which had run out of fuel, so one of the workers siphoned off fuel from his motorbike.
In the afternoon we were in an agricultural area but managed to find a good camp spot behind an orange grove. All around us we could hear shepherds moving their flocks, but they never came close and we stayed undiscovered.
After a fast morning cycling in the desert, we found a rare rest area with a few shops and a little park, so we pulled in for our lunch break. Hadi, a shop owner, enjoyed practising his English with us and told us he was learning English to be able to talk to tourists. It had been 6 months since the last time a tourist stopped at his shop, so he was overjoyed to see us!
The route between Shiraz and Bandar Abbas is quite remote, with only two sizeable towns during the 600km stretch. We spent a night in Jahrom, which was an interesting little town, though we did feel we got ripped off by the local honey seller who first enticed us to try his honeycomb, gave us some “free” sweets, and then charged us the earth for a small pot of honey.
Coming out of a tunnel the following day, we just avoided becoming witness to a bus accident. The bus driver had been patiently driving behind us in the narrow tunnel, but decided to overtake right at the end, not considering the oncoming traffic… Collision narrowly avoided, we stopped by the side of the road to catch our breath, and just then a car pulled up. Four men got out, one of whom was carrying a rather large picture frame with an image of some colourful goddess, price tags still attached. We were rather puzzled by their intentions, but all became clear (sort of) when the men asked Guy to hold the picture frame, so they could take a photo of him with the frame. Photo shoot complete, they thanked us, grabbed the picture frame, did a U-turn and drove off. Definitely one of our more random encounters…
That afternoon, the two situations we dreaded most occurred at once: running out of water, and not finding a place to camp.
We had been planning to refill our water bottles in the afternoon at a town marked on our map, but it turned out to be just a dusty village off to the side of the road, with no obvious shops or facilities, and no sign announcing its name. By the time we realised that this village had actually been the “town” we were looking for, it was too far to turn back. There weren’t many houses around, and the next town was 65km away. It was already late afternoon, we were approaching a mountainous area and had to find a place to camp, but with only one litre of water between us, that was not an option. Eventually we spotted a concrete building and went down a dirt track to ask for water. A small girl shyly greeted us and ran off to get her mum who made it clear that they had no water at the house. They looked quite poor and obviously had a tough, very basic life out there in the desert. Still waterless, we trotted back to the road and were about to cycle on when we heard a man’s voice calling us back. Dad had just arrived on a motorbike, carrying a large canister of water that he had fetched from some underground source only known to the locals. He gave us a few litres of water and adamantly refused the money we offered him in return. The water tasted very “earthy”, so we were glad we had our water filter to purify it.
With enough water to see us through the night, we started looking for a camp spot. The mountainous stretch turned out not to have any accessible camp spots, and shortly afterwards, we entered an agricultural area. Everywhere, there were farmers driving around on their motorbikes, doing U-turns to get a closer look at us. All of the land was being used, and on dusk we still had not found a camp spot. However, things get easier when it is dark, and we eventually managed to find a sandy area that wasn’t really used for anything and only had some irrigation pipes running through it. We pitched up but had a patchy night’s sleep as we knew that several motorbike tracks ran through the area not far from us. We could have asked for permission to camp, but since our experience with Suleyman the Terrible, we are hesitant to just pull up to a house on dusk without a chance to suss out the owners first. We much prefer asking at restaurants or other more public areas where we can find out a bit more about the land owners before we ask them to camp.
In the morning, we got up very early and left at sunrise. We did not get far though. After filling up our water bottles at an irrigation pipe, we only went 5 minutes down the road before we found a nice spot under some trees to have breakfast. We felt like kings, sitting there on the dusty ground and having a real feast: a fry-up with garlic, onion, tomatoes and eggs, bread, cereal, and milky coffee. Meanwhile, we watched the sunrise and chatted before deciding to make more tea, and suddenly two hours had slipped by. On the road we saw our first sign to the Gulf, spurring us on.
The temperature was getting warmer as we dropped in altitude every day. In Shiraz, at over 1,500m altitude, it had been very cold in the shade and at night, but here the temperatures were perfect for camping. An arid moonscape was our setting for the day, and people looked darker and thinner. We had been warned about banditry in the area, and in fact almost everyone we saw looked like a bandit, even families on motorbikes, as they all completely cover their faces with Arab chequered scarves. Only the eyes squint through a small slit in the fabric (sunglasses seem to be non-existent here). Still, everyone happily waved to us and shouted greetings. The bandits would probably be more interested in targeting the locals anyway, as most cars coming from the duty free shopping areas on the coast were loaded up with brand new electronic goods (and, in some cases, alcohol – as one man confessed to us).
The second decent sized town we passed through was Lar, a small town with an Arabic feel. Rock cliffs towered over the town, and we really got a feel for how it used to be in the olden days. There was a circular ice house, some beautiful mosques, and the traffic was reasonably calm so we enjoyed strolling the streets.
As always we were struggling to find decent bread, but today we were in luck: we found a little bakery near our hotel. In Iran, fresh bread can only be purchased in the evening between around 5-6pm when the bakeries are open. Come at any other time, and they will either be closed, or the bread won’t be ready yet, or it will already be sold out. We joined the bread queue and watched the baker form dough balls that were then flattened and placed into a stone oven filled with small pebbles. Each flat bread took only a few minutes to cook and was then passed to an assistant who removed any pebbles that were stuck to it. Everyone in the queue was chatting away and patiently waiting for their bread order to be baked. As some people in front of us ordered as many as 20 flat breads, and they were baked one at a time, we waited for quite a long while. Finally, we placed our order for 3 breads. Even for Iran, this bread was extremely cheap, and we were only charged 5000 Rials ($0.50) for 3 huge flat breads. When our bread had been baked, it was folded up, and the baker placed a 5000 Rial note on top before passing the hot bread to Freddie. Mumbling something about Iranian traditions, he just smiled and walked off when Freddie tried to give the money back to him.
Lar was the real start of our big downhill ride to the Persian Gulf, though the downhill was not as smooth as we had expected. Before we had left Lar, a local taxi driver had warned us that there would not be any water for a long time, and he was right. There were no shops for the next 130km or so, except for one little shack that sold water and some soft drinks. We also managed to get some water at a police checkpoint. In return, Guy offered the officers some dates. Thanking him, one of the soldiers took the whole pack of dates off him and walked off. Well – who are we to argue over a pack of dates with someone who carries an AK-47? Deprived of one of our favourite snacks, we still managed to push out our longest day so far, at 125km.
Due to the lack of habitation or agriculture in the area, it was very easy to find a good camp spot. We found a lovely camp in a wide dried out river valley, where we relaxed for the evening star gazing and reminiscing about our long ride through Europe and the Middle East and how comfortable we felt in Iran. After 6 months on the road and 8,500km of cycling, we knew that this was probably going to be our last camp for a while as we don’t expect to camp much in India and South East Asia.
We were keen to make it to Bandar Abbas the following day. It was going to be a push, but we got up early and were blessed with a tail wind. After seeing camel warning signs, and (unfortunately) camel road kill for so long, we finally spotted a herd of about 20 camels grazing on thorn trees. They were bigger than we had expected, but also seemed quite tame, so Guy got up close to take some photos.
The other thing we had been looking out for was the Persian Gulf, but we were almost in Bandar Abbas when we finally spotted a small strip of blue on the horizon. We hadn’t seen the ocean since leaving Istanbul three months earlier, and it was great to rest our eyes on the calming ocean blue, such a contrast from the desert regions where we have spent much of our time.
Close to Bandar Abbas, the road became very busy with trucks carrying containers to the nearby port. For the last few kilometres, there were trucks everywhere, noise, dirty repair shops, and not much space for bikes. After another long day’s cycling at 123km, we finally made it to Bandar Abbas, exhausted, sad that our cycling adventures in Iran were over, but also happy to have arrived and ready for a new chapter.
We had expected Bandar Abbas to be a bit of a dump, but actually found it okay. Yes, there is a lot of wheeling and dealing going on, and some shifty characters, but there is also a very modern shopping centre, and it has a kind of waterfront. People are as friendly and curious as everywhere else in Iran, and we had one memorable encounter with a fun loving sales lady in a nut shop who spent about half an hour reading out random English words from her dictionary (favourite line: “before I love you”, translates to “do you like beef”), before rummaging around in her hand bag and presenting Freddie with her bottle of perfume!
Our plan is to get the twice-weekly ferry from Bandar Abbas to Dubai, where we will have some logistics to sort out before we tackle India. We have also just had confirmation that Freddie’s dad is making the most of his air miles once again to come and visit us in Dubai, and we are looking forward to some time off the bikes.
It took us 2,300km and 7 weeks to cycle Iran, and at some points we were really close to giving up on cycling due to the intense truck traffic up north. While we would wholeheartedly recommend Iran as a travel destination, we would not recommend cycling the stretch from Maku to Esfahan for pleasure, unless you manage to find a much quieter road than the direct route we took. There are simply too many trucks on the roads. The stretch from Esfahan to Bandar Abbas via Shiraz however is fine for cycling, and we found it quite enjoyable. People everywhere are super friendly and honest, wild camping in Iran is fantastic as there is so much space, and we have always felt very safe. The scenery, whilst not as spectacular as some of the scenery we have seen in Turkey, is interesting, unless arid desert moonscapes are not your cup of tea. For us the real highlights of Iran were the cities and the immensely kind, generous, curious and lovely people we met, the Iranians really do wear their hearts on their sleeves. Don’t be put off by the media. Iran is a very safe country to travel in, and the people will give you a fantastic welcome and memories to cherish for a life time. It has been one of the biggest highlights of our trip so far.
Khoda Hafez Iran.