Extreme Hospitality, Desert Camps and Ancient Cities

Esfahan – Shiraz

After two weeks off the bikes, we were keen to get going again. We had a quick breakfast with Mike and Jo, a New Zealand couple cycling from Beijing to Paris, then we were on our way. To our relief, the traffic south of Esfahan was a lot lighter than it had been in the north of Iran, so we actually enjoyed the cycling. Coming out of the city centre we had a steep hill climb. Looking back we noticed three Iranian cyclists approaching. They didn’t speak much English but we understood they were part of a cycling club. As we left they took photos of us and gave us some timely sweets which helped power us to the summit.||

Passing a fuel station we decided to swing in as our fuel bottle was empty. Waiting patiently in the queue we attracted the usual curious stares. We can almost hear their thoughts. “Aren’t they on bicycles, what do they need fuel for?”

Presenting our fuel bottle to the attendant he happily filled it, 1L came to US $0.10. Ironically petrol is actually rationed, though Iran has one of the biggest reserves in the world. As Guy reached for his wallet the man in the car behind jumped out and insisted on paying. It was a lovely gesture, much appreciated, even though the fuel would have only cost us a few cents.

In the afternoon we arrived in a small town and went to look for a hotel. Everyone pointed us to an expensive looking place near a very busy park. It seemed that many Esfahanis had come down for the weekend and there were hundreds of people camping in the park and having picnics. The hotel was very nice but too expensive for us and also only accessible by climbing many stairs (a nightmare with fully loaded bicycles), so we pushed on to find somewhere else. Asking at a small shop, we got pointed in the direction of a cheap guest house, but just as we were about to leave a young man passed the shop and offered for us to stay in his flat, which was above the shop. We were pretty tired and looking forward to relaxing in a hotel, but the man was really nice and somehow we found ourselves accepting the offer, particularly after his bubbly sister had emerged from the house and waved us in.

Mahmud and his sister, Mahdie, helped us bring the bicycles into the hallway and invited us to the living room, where their mother was already in the kitchen attending to a brew. The family seemed quite modern, watching satellite TV, and, most importantly, they had a little dog! This is very unusual in Iran, as dogs are not allowed inside the house for religious reasons (this little doggie, Barfie, stayed in his own separate room outside the flat). The family did not speak much English, but we were able to communicate as usual with sign language and our language guide book. Soon, Guy was invited to go for a drive with Mahmud and the men left. Freddie stayed behind with the ladies.

As soon as the men were gone, the head scarves came off and the women relaxed. Mahdie was in the middle of dying her sister-in-law’s hair blonde, and some friends came to visit and gossip. Mahdie is an inspiring young woman of 23 years who is studying IT. She is also a goal keeper in the local football team and has won a regional cup. She plays volleyball, does Arabic dancing, is very good at knitting and does the hair dressing for her friends and family. Freddie got a taste of her skills as her hair was expertly blow dried by Mahdie after her shower.

Many other women came to visit, one of which spoke English so that it was easier for Freddie to communicate with the family. Mahdie showed Freddie videos of her engagement party, in which she wore a white wedding dress and received lots of presents. The video was of the women’s party, so all the ladies were wearing evening dresses, no head scarves, and were having a great time dancing and singing together. There was also a professional photo album with photos of Mahdie and her fiancé, and, most impressive of all, a collection of video clips that had been shot in a local studio. The videos were like music clips, with Mahdie and her fiancé being the main protagonists. Mahdie was dressed up Beyonce style (no head scarf) and every video showed a different short love story. It was very professional, and they really seemed to enjoy the acting – Mahdie is very tall and pretty, so the videos, which took a whole week to film, looked the part.

Meanwhile, Guy and Mahmud called in at Mahdie’s fiancé’s printing business and then visited Mahmud’s brother to watch football. When the men came back, there were about 20 people accumulated in the living room, and it was decided that we would all go to a garden and have dinner there. As usual, no explanations were offered and we had no idea where we were going – a park? Or maybe a restaurant? How would they organise dinner for so many people?

At about 9pm, we all gathered outside the flat as various cars emerged to transport the entourage to the mysterious destination. Quite a way out of the city, we took a sudden turnoff down a dirt road, the car headlights struggling to penetrate the thick dust. As we bumped along in the dark we grew ever more curious as to our destination, until we finally stopped at a large set of iron gates. Throwing back the gates revealed a small pomegranate and walnut plantation encircling a rustic farm house. When we entered the mood became even more delirious as the women giggled and sang and the men fussed about the garden gathering firewood for the imminent charcoal BBQ. Carpets were laid out on the floor, and we made ourselves at home.

Freddie with Mahdie and friends

In the garden, a fire was made and the boys got busy barbequing chicken. Inside, there was singing and dancing, and Mahdie did a little performance in Arabic dancing. She then invited Freddie to join her, but unfortunately her dancing performance was quite appalling in comparison with Mahdie. The garden is where the family likes to hang out and have fun, play cards, smoke the water pipe and dance – it is their haven.

BBQ Kids playing

Even though we had been served some snacks since we arrived at the family house at 4pm, we hadn’t eaten anything substantial, and by now we were starving. We usually have dinner at 6 or 7pm, but it took until midnight to cook the chicken. Everyone was laughing about us as we devoured the delicious barbequed chicken with bread, yoghurt and salad at break-neck speed. When we got back home at 1:30am, we were utterly exhausted, but we also felt very lucky to have spent time with this caring and fun family in such a relaxed environment. We were given the bedroom of Mahmud and his wife, and as usual there was no way of refusing, so they slept on the floor in the living room. Mahdie had to leave early the next morning, so she said an emotional goodbye and even gave Freddie a necklace as a memento.

In the morning, we had breakfast with Mahmud’s wife and his mum. His mum works in a bakery and gave us some bread to take with us. They asked us to stay longer, but we managed to convince them that we had to leave. As we said goodbye, several of the other family members and friends came over for a quick visit and to say goodbye. We waved Mahmud goodbye (in the photo he is the one in the middle), while Hossein and Ahmad Reza got on their motorbike and rode through town with us to make sure we found the way. They also warned us to be careful on the roads and not to trust anyone (we have encountered this time and time again on our trip, people often seem to be the most scared of their own neighbours).


The boys with their motorbike

It always amazes us how we can have so much fun and somehow communicate with people who we don’t share a common language with, and still there is never an awkward moment. The night we spent with this family is certainly one of our favourite memories of Iran.

As we rode through the town, a man in a car drove slowly alongside us and quizzed Hossein and Ahmad Reza about us. When we stopped to say goodbye to them, the man was there, and as soon as the guys had left, he ran off to buy us some tea and biscuits. We were keen to get going but there was no way to refuse. The man did not speak a word of English, and our Farsi is very limited, but he made a great communication effort to ask us how long it would take us to get to the next village. We were unsure why he needed to know this, but said it would take us one hour. The man looked at his mobile phone to check the time, and then slammed it shut, walked to his car and drove off.

With many people, we can now make immediate decisions on whether to trust them or not, using clues like their eyes, their smile, clothes and behaviour. Mahmud was a typical case where we knew from the first moment that he was a good person. However, we were not really sure about this man and his intentions and couldn’t really tell from the usual clues. All we knew was that he drove an old car and was unusually keen to know the details of our whereabouts. A few alarm bells began to ring as the warnings not to trust anyone where still fresh in our minds.

When we arrived in the village an hour later, we were a little apprehensive, especially when we saw the man already waiting for us on the road. He waved us over and made food gestures, pointing to a restaurant. There’s no harm in having some lunch, we thought, so we went to the restaurant with him. Inside, he asked the restaurant owner to show us some food choices and proceeded to order a mountain of food for us. He asked us to sit down while he discussed the food with the restaurant owner, and soon we were served: There were lamb shanks, stewed aubergines, two types of salad, rice, bread, pickles, yoghurt, and drinks. However, we then realised that only two portions were served, and it looked like the man was not intending to eat with us. After he had made sure the food had arrived and was to our taste, he waved us a quick goodbye and left with just a little bag of bread for himself, before we could even find out his name! The meal was delicious, and even with our healthy appetites it was more than we could eat. It must have cost him a good amount, and he did not look exactly wealthy. Sometimes we feel so humbled by the generosity of the people here that we are almost moved to tears.

Desert camp

That night we camped in the desert at 2,200m altitude, our highest campsite on the trip. We just walked out into the desert when it got dark and set up camp by moonlight. We enjoyed the quiet and solitude of the desert. It got very cold at night – the thermometer on our bike computer showed -3°C when we woke up in the morning. Luckily our sleeping bags are warm, and Freddie converted one of her aluminium water bottles into a hot water bottle.

The cycling was much better here than in the north of Iran, with a wide shoulder, not as much traffic, and a more interesting desert and mountain landscape. Shortly before the town of Abadeh, a man in a white Paykan stopped us and invited us for lunch. He gave us his phone number and address, and when we arrived in town asking for directions, another man escorted us all the way to the family home. Muhammed was a vet, and we were invited to park our bikes in the courtyard and rest in the sitting room. Here, we did our usual act of explaining who we are and what we are doing with a mix of sign language, our language guide book, our map, and photos of our families. We spent a couple of hours here with the men, while the women were busy cooking. Finally lunch was ready. It was worth the wait, as it was a delicious chicken and rice dish. We ate with the men on the floor of the living room, while the women were eating in the kitchen. Unfortunately we were never really introduced to the women, though Freddie did go over afterwards to thank them for the meal, which they seemed to appreciate. The family wanted us to stay for the night, but we were keen to do a bit more distance before nightfall, and so we ended up sleeping in a hotel in the next village.

With Muhammed, the vet Lunch with Muhammeds family

For the whole next morning, we climbed. It was a slow and quite enjoyable climb which took us up to the highest pass of our entire trip, at 2,550m altitude. After a lovely descent and well-deserved kebab lunch, we were suddenly faced with another, smaller pass. We arrived at the top just on nightfall. It gets dark just after 5pm now, and we are sometimes pushed to make our distance during the short daylight hours. It was too late to get down the pass and into warmer climes, so we pitched up near the top, at 2,130m. We had lovely views over a valley and some mountain ranges. It was windy and very cold, but we did sit outside for a little while to look at the stars, and each of us saw a shooting star. Satisfied, we made our wishes and crawled into the tent.

 Hilltop camp View from campsite

A fast descent later, we arrived at the turnoff for Pasargadae, home of Cyrus the Great who became ruler of the Persian Empire when he defeated his own grandfather in battle at the site in 550 BC. Cyrus conquered a huge amount of land, reaching from Turkey and Babylon all the way to what is now Pakistan. During his campaigns he employed some nifty tricks: in one battle, he strategically planted wine so that the opposing army would get drunk. Of course he won the battle, but the queen ruling the opposing side swore revenge and eventually defeated him and dunked his severed head in a tub filled with human blood. He was buried in a mausoleum at Pasargadae, which still stands, along with the remains of some of his palaces.

Cyrus the Great mausoleum Pasargadae ruins

Having completed our sightseeing and an interview with a group of about 30 students, we pushed on to get to Persepolis. On the way, we met some French cycle tourers, the first we have actually met while on the road in Iran. Shortly afterwards, Freddie’s rear tire suddenly burst: there was a slash in the tire, probably from a shaft of glass. Guy expertly repaired the tire with superglue, but by now it was getting late again and we were challenged to get to Persepolis before dark. When we arrived just in time, we stopped at the tourist complex to enquire about the price of a hotel room, but as this was way beyond our budget we ended up camping there instead. This was the first time since Western Europe that Boris had been pitched on soft, fresh grass without thorns, and he loved it.

In the morning, we visited Persepolis. This magnificent city was built by Darius I, who ruled the Persian Empire after Cyrus’s demise. Persepolis was built as the ceremonial and religious hub of the empire, whose primary God was Ahura Mazda, who is also worshipped by the Zoroastrians. Although largely ruined, the remains leave you in no doubt about the grandeur of the Persian empire.

Persepolis gate Persepolis overview

There are monumental staircases, imposing gateways, forests of columns, and above all, many exquisite and well preserved reliefs. The most impressive reliefs, on the Apadana staircase, depict the arrival of delegations from 23 nations to meet the king. Ethiopians, Arabs, Indians, Cappadocians, Elamites and many other nations are depicted in their traditional dress, bearing gifts ranging from two-humped camels to gold dust. Unfortunately, Alexander the Great eventually conquered Persia and spent several months at Persepolis in 330 BC before employing 3000 camels to  carry off the contents of the treasury, and then burning the whole of Persepolis to the ground. Even now we could still see burn marks on some of the columns. Persepolis was covered in dust and sand for centuries, until excavations in the 1930s revealed its splendour once again.

Persepolis reliefs 

In the afternoon, we cycled to Shiraz. As soon as we arrived in town, we were invited for tea by an eager tent shop owner whose son was in the process of getting a visa for Australia. He sent one of his relatives to escort us to our hotel, as we were a little lost, and we checked into a good cheap room in Zand Hotel. Our room is large enough to comfortably cook in, so we stocked up on fruit and veg and decided Shiraz was going be a healthy stay for us. We did some sightseeing and visited the Hafez memorial, one of the most important sites for Iranians who worship the poet. We also wandered around the laid-back bazaar for some more souvenir shopping.

Hafez tomb in Shiraz Flowers near Hafez tomb

Shirazis are very friendly and welcoming, sometimes too much so: we got a real taste for how it is to be a rock star when a couple stalked us one morning. They were hanging around outside of our room to get a picture of us. When Guy ventured out to the bathroom with his morning hair-do in top form, the “paparazzi” cornered him and asked him to get Freddie so that they could take a picture of her. Unfortunately Freddie was busy cooking porridge and didn’t have her head scarf on, so she could not oblige, and the couple eventually left slightly disappointed with a strange picture of a bearded man. On the road, we often get stopped by people asking us to take photos of us, and quite a few times we have even been asked for an autograph!

We are spending a few more days here before our final 600km push to Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf, marking the end of our Iranian adventure. We will take a ferry to Dubai where we will apply for our Indian visa – the next chapter awaits.