After spending a much longer time in Tehran than I had ever expected, my funds were running low. This is crucial in Iran because credit card are of no use, and foreigners cannot access ATMs. I decided to bus the rest of the way out of the country to save time. With Pakistan ruled out, and not wanting to step inside an embassy for a long time, my destination was the United Arab Emirates – no visa, no money.
An uphill trek of 5 kilometres or so took me to the Arzantin Square bus depot in Tehran. The logisitics were very simple this time and I was not even charged for the bike. I just loaded it in the luggage compartment and enjoyed the 6-hour southbound journey to Isfahan. I pedalled into the centre of the city and found a cheap place to stay (less than €10 per night for my own room, and breakfast in bed). I had just enough time for a visit to the very quaint Si-o-Se Pol bridge. As the sun set and the bridge was lit up, I struggled to find a prettier bridge in my bank of memories. I thought only of the majestic old structures at Regensburg and Prague.
This pedestrian bridge in Isfahan was hewn from rock and was full of little side chambers, nooks, doorways and windows that lent it a mysterious feel. The fact that the river was running dry did not seem to detract from the charm of it all.
That night I joined a friend I had met in Tehran (Negin) and her sister. They had grown up together in Isfahan. We stopped for a fresh juice of orange and pomegranate (I prefer the much nicer Persian word anar) and ate pizza. The special vegan version was a rather bizarre concoction – it excluded the tomato sauce and was piled thick with corn and mushroom so as there was no bread in sight. I had only asked them to omit the cheese.
The following day was spent taking in the outstanding architecture that the city had to offer and Negin and her friend were my local guides for the day. I had arranged to meet Negin at 9 o’clock “under the clock at the square”. Of course I arrived at the wrong square, and there was no Negin to be found. Luckily for me a pushy carpet seller came to the rescue, by calling her and asking her to meet us at his carpet shop. I sat drinking tea with him while he lay out his wares in front of me, talking at length about the intricacies of the stitching, all of which was handmade. I explained that I was travelling by bicycle and could not carry a carpet, but that did not put him off. He simply moved to the smaller versions. I then explained that I was vegan and would not by anything of animal derived material.
“No problem” he rejoineded, “just take a silk carpet”.
“No, silk is also animal derived”.
“What!” he sneered. “What animal do you think silk comes from”
“It comes from the silk worm”
He guffawed moisily after hearing this information.
“Are you crazy, silk is grown on trees” he said in an astonished tone.
Just at that moment Negin arrived and ended my ordeal.
Our first visit was to the beautifully ornate Sheikh Lotfollah mosque. The building featured a magnificent ceramic-tiled dome, built in the 17th century and was said to be fashioned in a peacock tail design. It was a very compact and comfortable done and could be reached through a half-lit tunnel entrance. The mosque was named after its Lebanese architect, and is quite unusual in not have any minarets. It was formerly reserved for use by the harem of the shah who resided across the square at Ali Qapa palace. The two buildings were said to be linked by an underground tunnel at one time. It was that very palace that we visited next. Upstairs was the music room, and a very special one it was, with guitar shapes carved out of the wooden ceilings, and chambers specially designed to help with acoustics. The palace also had a sweeping balcony view (unfortunately for me it was interrupted on this occasion by some ongoing construction to prevent the building from decaying further).
It was suddenly lunch time and I was in for a real treat in the shape of the Malek Soltan Jarchi Bashi. This restaurant was situated amidst the mud-brick back streets, just behind the city’s famous Bazaar Bozorg, and even Negin needed to ask for directions. The building was a beautifully restored former bath house. The original building was thought to be constructed 1,000 years ago during the Safavid era.
It was an omnivorous restaurant but there was plenty for me to feast on. There was an excellent salad bar for starters, accompanied by some fresh and tasty taftun bread. The main course was a rice dish, cooked with some Iranian beans (bakala), a kind of red currant, and saffron and turmeric. We washed it back with Iranian tea and dates.
There was just time afterwards to take in the very handsome Chelsatoon Palace. The building was set in a particularly grand garden and the front entrance was shaded by a twenty-pillared porch. The porch was reflected by the artificial lake which it looked out upon, giving the palace its name, which translates to the ‘palace of forty pillars’.
I was on my own the following day and I completed my selective tour of the cities vast number of tourist sites. I started back at the city’s showpiece, the Naghsh-e-Jahan Square, visiting the Emama mosque. The square itself is the third largest in the world according to Negin. At the rear of the complex was the most impressive dome with an incredible echo effect. I practiced wailing “Allah” with a moslem clerk. He claimed that the echo was audible up to 40 times. Even my amateur efforts were producing 15 reverberations.
Vank church was a different proposition, situated to the south of the river. This was an Armenian church in the city’s Jolfa district. The district was the home of the Armenians, who were invited to Isfahan to work as merchants and architects. Unlike in Turkey, the Armenians were respected in Isfahan, and allowed to practice their Christian religion. In the curch courtyard, a small museum presents, alongside many Armenian artefacts, the best display I had seen on the Armenian genocide. During the last years of the Ottoman Empire, an estimated 1 million Armenians were slaughtered, and a further 1 million forcefully transported to Syria under dreadful conditions. The Turkish government has never recognised this atrocity.
In the afternoon I managed to track down the bus stop for the Zoroastrian fire temple, which sat atop a hill to the west of the city. I provided the comical entertainment for a bus full of schoolkids, who seemed to find every thing I did, or said, hilarious. One of them, who spoke English well, directed me to the site, and another walked me up to the entrance. There is little left of the site, originally built upon by the pre-Islamic fire worshipers. At the top, I was asked to take a photo for two Iranian tourists.
“We are gay” they declared as I positioned myself for the shot.
“Oh ok. Very good” I remarked from beihnd the camera.
“Don’t tell anyone”
“Oh no don’t worry” I said laughing.
“They will kill us if you tell them”.
“Yes. Now can you take one of us kissing. Is it better on the cheek or on the lips?”
“As you like”
The pair certianly made a mockery of the former president’s statement of there being “no gays in Iran”.
The following morning I made my way to the bus terminal but was blocked from loading my bike, by the bus boy, who was looking for a 100,000 Rial extra payment. I protested, so he told me to go to see the manager. Back at the office a fat, suited man came running out from behind the counter.
“Mister, 250,000 Rial” he was shouting, with a slightly mocking grin.
I just ignored him, and put the bike on the bus. A fellow passenger was mediating on my behalf and managed to negotiate a 50,000 Rial fee. I boarded the bus and heard no more of it. On the way into Shiraz the same fellow passenger, Reza, invited me to stay with him in his family home in the suburbs. I thought it a good idea and so I disembarked with him and his wife, just 10 kilometres outside the city. The busboy began complaining about the bike again and was asking Reza for a tip from me. I finally relented and handed him the 50,000 Rial. We were waiting for Reza’s son to arrive with a car, when the bus boy came running towards me. I had left my book on the bus. He ran off quickly and the bus left, but shortly afterwards I realised I’d left my iPhone on the bus too. This was a disaster, as the phone served as my GPS and without it I had no way of navigating.
Once the son arrived in the car, Reza and I jumped in and we chased after the bus. Reza was driving furiously, weaving in and out of traffic and tailgating and flashing lghts at anyone who got in his way. He seemed more worried than I was. In fact, I was more worried now, that we might crash the car. We arrived at the bus terminal but all the passengers had left. The bus boy stood in his underpants in the aisle of the bus, changing his clothes, and claimed he had seen no phone. There was no sign of it at the company office either. We were just about to give in, when a passenger walked passed us. Reza recognised her and asked her about the phone. We discovered that she had actually handed the phone and the book to the second bus boy, who had by now escaped the scene.
We chased back to the bus and updated the first bus boy and the driver. The first bus boy walked off out of earshot as if to call his colleague. Suddenly the phone appeared, although missing its cover. I was eternally grateful to Reza. Without him I would have been scratching around Shiraz for a GPS and/or maps.
I felt sorry for Reza’s wife and son who were forced to wait on the roadside for our return, but they took it with utmost grace. Next, my bicycle was in the back of the car. I was treated very well at Reza’s home, and after showering, we sat on the floor and feasted on rice, lavash bread, raw onion, chillis from the garden, lemonitas, anar, and we then finished with tea and dates.
I slept on the living room floor on a mattress that was surprisingly comfortable. I was woken to Ashraf (Reza’s wife) preparing a breakfast of lavash bread, dates and tea. I cycled the 30km downhill into Shiraz and found a hotel charging about €7 per night. It was a seriously grubby place but it helped my budget. It had a kitchen but I dared not use it. The toilet and showers had no locks on the doors, which meant you had to squat and hold the door at the same time. The bed sheets were littered with random stains. I chose the best 2 availabe from the beds and swapped them over. I was told that the old people in the hotel didn’t like to see people wearing shorts, so I had to put trousers on.
I walked around the city and found a stream of people heading towards the Shah Charrgh complex and followed them. On the way into the complex I had my camera temporarily confiscated, and inside there were tens of thousands of people praying and chanting and bowing. The complex sparkled and mirrored halls lit up the interior praying areas. Inside one, was the shirine which people touhced and embraced. An attendant walked me around the complex and explained that the day was a religious festival of sorts and moslems had gathered from all over Iran.
Back at the hotel, one of the cleaners had pulled a spare bed into the corridor outside my room and was in slumber there for the night. At six o’clock the next morning, he decided to push the steel-framed bed back out along the tiled floor, making an unruly, ear-splitting racket. Luckily I was already awake, and so I told him to stop and lifted it outside with him.
I left early the next day for Persepolis, the ancient Perisan site built initially by Darius, the ruler of a mighty Persian kingdom that stretched out as far as Afghanistan, Egypt, Greece and parts of Russia. The bus cost me an extraordinarily cheap price of about 35 cents, while the taxi ride for the final 5 kilometres was not much more. Perseoplis was built as a symbol of power but also as a place to receive gifts from the representatives of the kingdom’s many realms. This is depicted in the carvings on the walls in the site itself. All of them are well-crafted and detailed, and remain very visible today. The site was set ablaze when Alexander the Great came romping though Iran in the 4th Century.
On the way home I was offered a free space in the front seat with three Iranians travelling back to Shiraz. They invited me along to the Eram Garden with them and then to the burial place of the much-loved Iranian poet, Hafez. In Iran, all of the tourist places have different prices for Iranians and non-Iranians. Sometimes tourists pay eight times the price that Iranians pay. My three friends – Mr Jobad, Yunes and Youssef – isnisted on paying for everything. We tried to pass for 4 Iranians, but at Eram Garden, a guard called me back, claiming that I was a tourist and should pay the tourist price. We tried again at the Hafez burial place and this time a guard started shouting as he came running after me.
“Excuse me sir. Excuse me sir”
We kept walking. This time I had given my bag to Yunes and was wearing my sunglasses. Mr Hobad stopped the guard in his tracks. He explained that I was his brother but that I now lived in Ireland and could not speak Farsi. Somehow the guard was persuaded and I was at least happy that my friends were not forced to pay for a tourist ticket. We sat drinking tea and then bought some sangak and ate it with some fresh and juicy anar. Finally we found a park, where a free concert was playing. It was a happy finish to a happy day. I arranged to meet my friends again the next morning at the Citadel in the city centre but we missed each other. I also visited the old mosque (Vekil Mosque), negotiating a free entry.
Back at the the hotel the cleaners were still puffing away on the cigarettes, and despite several requests had not changed the bed sheets for me. That was my last night in Shiraz and the following day I was bound for the Persian Gulf port of Bandar Abbas, which would mark the end of my Iranian odyssey. The final stretch into Bandar Abbas was a joy to behold, with the road crawling and winding up rocky mountain passes. We passed one bus that had come to an abrupt halt by the roadside. The entire front of the bus had been ripped off, and rows of seats faced out to us as we passed. Thankfully we did not meet a similar fate, arriving safely at the Persian Gulf. I cycled in the dark along the edge of the gulf and found a place to stop for the night. The next morning I breakfasted on sangak and anar and then ventured out to find the ship to Dubai. I was directed out along the Gulf where somehow, flamingos managed to eek out an existence by sifting the streams that flowed past industrial wasteland.
I found the port about five kilometres outside the city, but amazingly I was unable to buy a ticket there and needed to return to the city. I cycled back looking for a phantom office but nobody seemed to know of its existence or where I might find any place selling the tickets. Eventually I was directed towards the office of a shipping agency. The security guard told me it was cargo only, but as I turned away, a man called me back and told me to come with him. I sat in an office upstairs waiting for the arrival of another official. This man took my details but told me that I must pay at the port and in Rials. I needed to change my dollars and after much deliberation, was finally directed to a shopping mall. Unfortunately it was just closing and was offering poor exchange rates anyway, so I decided to change the money at the port. Meanwhile a shopkeeper had invited me to lunch with him and his girlfriend. For someone I had just met on the street, I received the most generous hospitality imaginable. His girlfriend cooked a vegetable pasta and a prepared a fresh salad and we drank tea with dried fruits. They offered that I rest in their apartment but I thought it best to get back to the port. As I left I was handed a bag of figs, raisins and nuts, for the journey.
When I arrived at the port for the second time, I was disgusted to find that the exchange had closed for the day and was faced with yet another trip to the city. However, I was persuaded by a friendly fellow passenger, Manchoor, that I could pay in Dollar and take change backin Rial. He had been told this was possible by the security guard. I was dubious but I went along with it.
When the shipping staff finally arrived that evening, my attempts to pay in Dollar were rebuffed.
“Go away” said the official. “Bring me Iranian money”.
Just as I was wheeling the bike out of the port, a man shouted across to me and signaled for me to come to him. A shop had agreed to change my Dollars, and although they attempted to short-change me, I had the money for the ticket. When I returned to pay for the ticket, I was told that the “system was down” and would have to wait. I began to think there was a grudge against me, and that I would never get a ticket. Actually I never would have but for another Iranian man who was also looking for a last-minute ticket. He insisted that I come with him and together we raced into the city in a taxi where we stopped at a travel agent. We had two tickets within a few minutes and were back at the port just in time for boarding.
At 10 o’clock everyone was ready for the sailing, but strangely the ship would not leave until everyone had been served dinner – well everyone except me that is: vegan options are still to make it to Iran. We were scheduled to arrive in Dubai in the early hours of the morning but were informed, through Manchoor, that one of the engines had failed and that it would now be the late afternoon before we arrived. At 4 o’clock the next day we arrived at the port just north of Dubai and sat there for two hours waiting to be received by border control. I and an Austrian cyclist I had met by the name of Marian were the first to have our passports stamped out, but just when we thought we were free men again, a guard told us to wait. Customs was not ready for us yet it seemed.
After a trying time in the port we eventually cycled south into Dubai and I was struck immediately by how clean everything was – a complete opposite from Iran. We cycled through motorway traffic as the sun set to our right, and skyscrapers rose above to our left. Marian was bound for the airport to take a flight to India and I decided to join him in an attempt to buy a ticket for myself. The first reasonably priced ticket was four days off, so I paid for it online as I sat in the airport watching Marian pack his bike into an impossibly small carrier bag. I slept that night on a row of chairs, in surprising comfort and even found a tasty vegan Indian meal of dahl, spiced potato, rice, bread, chick pea curry and salad. All for five Euro, which shocked me, given everything I had been told about Dubai.