6 – 16 November, 2015 – Esfahan is the number-one tourist destination in Iran for good reason. We were blown away by its historic bazaars, tree-lined boulevards, the magnificent Imam Square, the second-largest square on earth, the Armenian quarter, its beautiful historic bridges and the Jameh Mosque, a veritable museum of Islamic architecture. We spent five full days relaxing, sightseeing, buying ourselves some nice souvenirs, extending our Iran visas and re-filling our batteries with good and often not so very healthy food – actually we had a burger or similar fast food almost every day. Fast food places are booming everywhere in Iran and hamburgers, hot dogs – often misspelled as hat dogs – or falafel sandwiches have become staple snacks besides kebab.
The great Imam Square:
At our hostel we met the first touring cyclist, Jakob from Stuttgart, and we exchanged roadside stories. There we also met an Iranian who was looking for French-speaking tourists. As I was the only one around he started chatting with me to practice his French. After all the usual questions such as “Where are you from?, What is your name?, Do you like Iran?” he invited us for lunch to his home. We were a little bit surprised by this spontaneous invitation and decided to decline it as we weren’t really sure about the man’s real intention. Was he a tour guide and expecting money from us? Was he trying to get anything else from us? Or was he just another friendly Iranian keen on demonstrating Iranian hospitality? We would never find out.
In Esfahan we also noticed the exaggerated beauty-mania Iran is famous for. Never had we seen so many women – and men by the way – with plasters on their noses or face masks given their recent plastic surgery. Women are wearing an awful lot of make-up, shave off their eyebrows to repaint them in for us bizarre and unnatural shapes. Not only look all noses the same in a very unnatural way but also their lips and cheeks have been injected. We were easily able to distinguish a natural from an artificial Iranian face within seconds. For us a very disturbing and sad trend, as Iranian women and men are very handsome, even more so without plastic surgery.
The men’s mosque at the Imam Square:
In the meantime we also noticed that it was getting winter. At an altitude of around 1500 meters day temperatures were still around 20 degrees but declined heavily at night. Night frost became more common day by day but we were grateful for the still low precipitation.
Some random Esfahan shots:
We couldn’t leave Esfahan without going once more back to the Imam Square, this time with our bikes. Again, we got several invitations to come with people to their homes and again we declined. As soon as we are sitting on our fully loaded bikes, we are no longer the ‘normal’ tourists and attract a lot of attention, even in tourist-spoilt cities like Esfahan.
On our way out of Esfahan we met another touring cyclist on his way to Shiraz – Samuel (19) from Germany. Samuel has been cycling from Germany to Iran and is writing about his adventures on samuelontour.com. Together we cycled to Shiraz. We finally were a family! In Iran it is forbidden to share a hotel room, if a couple is not married. Hence, we kept telling people, that we are married, which always triggered the question of children we declined and which usually resulted in an awkward silence. But now we had another problem – just one son wasn’t enough either!
On our first evening together we slept at a mosque. While Johan, the organizer, checked the room I waited together with Samuel when a man approached us and started the usual talking. As soon as he found out that Samuel was neither my husband (!!!) nor my son he turned to Samuel whispering in his ears. Samuel’s reaction told me clearly that he got an immoral offer from a gay Iranian. And this, while the government declares proudly, that there are no gay people in the country ;-). It took a few minutes to make the guy understood that Samuel seriously doesn’t want to have sex with him before he drove off in his car. Samuel told us, that this has happened quite often to him and all the times in Iran. We spent the night in a warm and spacious room with two huge beds, a bathroom and even our own kitchen. In the morning we got breakfast served and our 10 Dollars for the room returned – again, people were treating us very well!
The longer we cycled the more interesting became the landscape. We were moving at an altitude of around 2000 meters. The barren desert-like landscape was lined by rugged mountains in the far distance, some of them snow-capped by now. Traffic lessened the further away we got from Esfahan and we could either cycle on good dirt roads right next to the main highway or on a wide shoulder. We crossed a few passes, often struggled with headwinds but sometimes also flew with the wind.
The second night with Samuel we spent at the Red Crescent. This time, they were housed in a real building, not just containers and we got our own room, could use their showers and kitchen and once more enjoyed the warmth inside. This journey along the edge of the desert was becoming a very comfortable one as we had anticipated another 5-day-journey without showers or any other luxuries.
Our third day after leaving Esfahan was our longest in terms of kilometers and time in the saddle. Almost all day we had to climb and the headwind didn’t make it any easier. I spent most of the day in Johan’s or Samuel’s slipstream to reduce waiting time for them and to make it easier for me. It’s not my preferred way of cycling, as I don’t like looking at the back of somebody all day long, even if it is Johan’s back. By 4pm we reached the top of a pass at around 2,500m and still had around 25km to cycle into town, which we reached within an hour as we now cycled mostly downhill. Shattered and cold we asked a few people for a place to stay and they drove us to a house, where we could stay in a filthy room for a bit more than 10 EUR. Despite Samuel being unhappy about our decision, as paying for accommodation wasn’t neither adventurous nor interesting, we took the room. In the end we all were glad to be able to stay at a warm place instead of pitching the tent in a dark park at freezing temperatures.
After a slow start the following morning and with only Samuel being showered we continued our journey with today’s planned destination of Pasergardae, the place of Cyrus the Great’s tomb. At the beginning of another pass we met Jakob (19), another German touring cyclist, who joined our little family. Finally we were a ‘real’ family according to Iranian standards. Pasargadae is lesser known and besides Cyrus’ tomb not a really exciting site. The four of us still spent a few hours there and convinced Jakob to camp with us at the nearby restaurant. The following morning we woke to a completely frozen tent – very mystique, but very cold. Thankfully we could dry our tents and sleeping bags in the once again overheated restaurant. Something we noticed everywhere: now that it was getting colder, people started using their gas heating to an extent that was becoming extremely uncomfortable for us with inside temperatures of 25 degrees and above.
After half a day’s downhill cycling on a road meandering through a huge canyon we reached Persepolis, a Unesco World Heritage Site and one of the cultural highlights of our Iran trip. Persepolis was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire founded by Darius I in 518 B.C.. He created an impressive palace complex with monumental staircases, exquisite reliefs, striking gateways and massive columns that left us in no doubt how great this empire must have been. The whole complex had been covered in dust and sand and was only rediscovered in 1931.
We once more camped all together at an official campsite under pine-trees close to the Persepolis ruins and did not leave the following morning before having a final look from the outside at the palaces. Shortly after our departure we lost our ‘kids’, who obviously were keen to reach Shiraz as quickly as possible. So we continued once more alone, crossing two more small passes before rolling down into Shiraz. Traffic was massif and cycling no fun and we were glad when we finally reached our hotel.
Watch Samuel’s videos of our time together here: video 1 and video 2.