Diary - Iran

Tuesday 5th March 2002 - DAY 34

Starting point: Dogubayazit, Turkey
Ending point: Maku, Iran
Distanced travelled: 43 miles

Escaped the hotel Manager and drove to the border - the wind had picked up creating a bit of a dust storm. The border was as chaotic as expected - miles of trucks on either side and hundreds of people trying to go through to Iran. Drivers go through a separate immigration section to passengers, so we split up (slightly nervously) into the chaos. I found myself directed into a crowded room full of men which was then locked. People were banging on the door and arguing amongst themselves and shouting at the policeman who temporarily came to check we had enough air. I think people felt quite sorry for me as when the door did finally open (after about an hour) I was pushed to the front of the scrum to hand my passport over to the Iranian officials to be checked. I was quite relieved to find Robin already waiting for me on the other side - fortunately they hadn't insisted on checking the vehicle very thoroughly. We managed to find somewhere that would sell us some insurance and change some money for us (the government rate is 4000 rials to the pound, the black market rate is 8000...). We drove on to the nearby town of Maku, and found a cheap hotel for the night.

Wednesday 6th March 2002 - DAY 35

Starting point: Maku
Ending point: Tabriz
Distanced travelled: 192 miles

We travelled along the immaculate roads to Tabriz - the first major city from the border - then feared for our lives as we tried to negotiate our way to a hotel. Hundreds of people, bikes, taxis and buses all running the gauntlet with barely an inch to spare. Amidst the chaos, we found our way to a car park, fortunately just next to tourist info, and about 10 people tried to help us reverse into a very tight space. One of the people happened to be a guide who had helped out various Lonely Planet writers do their research. He helpfully found us a cheap hotel nearby and took us to buy some more suitable attire than the Morroccon-style black robes that I'd bought in London (apparently foreigners don't have to wear the full chador - just cover their head and wear a loose fitting, long shirt to disguise the shape of the body). We were already quite tired by this time so when he asked us if we would come to an English school and talk with the students it was the last thing we felt like doing, but people had been so kind and friendly to us so far (one man we met in a tea shop invited us for dinner and then rushed off to buy us a present of nuts and dried fruits, just to welcome us to Iran) that we felt we had to return the favour. It was actually quite an interesting experience - the younger generation obv iously has a much more open 'reformist' attitude and seemed very keen to learn about the Western way of life. The sight of the woman clad from head to toe in black in the streets still seemed a bit daunting though.

Thursday 7th March 2002 - DAY 36

Starting point: Tabriz
Ending point: Takht-e Soleiman
Distanced travelled: 220 miles

Had a good breakfast of yoghut/honey/ginger bread before heading out of Tabriz towards and into the country. The scenery started to become very beautiful and towards the afternoon the terracotta coloured mountains started to turn a deep shade of red. We passed through a couple of military check points but were waved on, although they did seem a little surprised to see a woman driving. There was still a fair bit of snow around as we approached the remote citadel of Tahkt-e Soleiman at about 8000ft. We had heard that it is possible to rough camp near the citadel so we found a reasonably flat spot near the car park and set up for the night. The split hose between the turbo and the inter-cooler is still sounding a bit dodgy so will have to try and find a replacement when we can.

Tahkt-e- Soleiman

Friday 8th March 2002 - DAY 37

Starting point: Takht-e Soleiman
Ending point: Sanandaj
Distanced travelled: 174 miles

We were woken up about 1am by some soldiers patrolling the area - fortunately they seemed quite surprised and amused when we stuck our heads out of the tent. It was a fairly chilly morning - all our water had frozen overnight so had to do without a cup of tea. We had a look around Takht-e Soleiman (based around a small lake which naturally refills itself by bubbling up 100 litres of water per second), climbed the volcanic cone nearby (which had a very deep crater inside), then headed south hoping the turbo hose would see us to the next town. We have decided to try and avoid Tehran as it's apparently very polluted and there's not a lot to see + the driving would be too much of a nightmare. Instead we 'bravely' stepped away from our guide book and headed out into the unknown. The turbo hose blew completely off while we were driving up a fairly steep hill, so we decided to remove the intercooler to check if there was a blockage. Not a single car or truck passed by without checking to see if we needed any help, and to provide tea which they all seem keep a supply of in their cars. One man insisted on diving into the engine to save us from getting dirty. We couldn't find anything wrong so tentatively drove on to the next town, Sanandaj. Having no idea where to stay we asked some people if they knew of a hotel - they insisted on escorting us right to the door. Naturally it turned out to be the most expensive hotel in town so we thanked them and waited until they'd gone before heading back into the centre to find a cheaper one.

Saturday 9th March 2002 - DAY 38

Starting point: Sanandaj
Ending point: Arak
Distanced travelled: 239 miles

Foreigners get a lot of attention in Iran!

We found someone who could speak good English (he had worked for the Embassy in London a few years ago) and who was able to direct us to a shop where we could get a new turbo hose. The car is sounding much better now, although we're not too sure how long it will last as the hose doesn't seem particularly durable. We drove through Hamandan to Arak and tried to find a hotel. One woman willingly offered to take us to a cheap hotel she knew. At the hotel she obligingly filled in all the forms for us (the hotel manager was a bit dubious - I don't think he had ever had foreigners stay in his hotel before and didn't believe that we were married - perhaps we were looking guilty?) then when we had our key she teafully begged us to help her obtain a visa so she could emmigrate to England, which made things a little awkward.

Sunday 10th March 2002 - DAY 39

Starting point: Arak
Ending point: Esfahan
Distanced travelled: 222 miles

We were awoken at 7am by a knock on the door - the woman had come back to give us her phone number and to take our address in England 'just to make sure'. We were quite glad to escape the town and head on through the mountains/desert to Esfahan. Amazingly we found our hostel straight away which left us with half the day free to look round the town. As we entered the main square we were approached by an Earnest Young English Speaker (we are starting to recognise these types) who insisted on joining us. He wasn't too dull though and showed us a good tea shop with a great view of the central square, and even kindly took us to his father's carpet shop for some more tea! Fortunately the Persians don't seem nearly as pushy with their carpet sales as the Turks and we were able to leave empty handed.

Meidun-e Emam Khomeini, Esfahan

Tuesday 12th March 2002 - DAY 41

We have spent the last couple of days around Esfahan as there's lots to see/do: mosques, bridges, tea houses, bazaars. It would be easy to spend a week here but there are too many tempting things to spend our money on - we settled for a good quality wooden backgammon board and a couple of photo frames. We have also met quite a few other travellers here (mostly staying in our hostel) - and one Finnish/German couple who have just travelled from India by car who were able to offer us some information about travelling through Pakistan. We went out for a meal with them to a traditional local place they knew where you sit around on a carpeted area and eat various traditional foods (without a plate). It was all pretty good except for a dubious looking bowl of white liquid which turned out to be sheep's whey and tasted as bad as it sounds.

Si-o-Se bridge

Wednesday 13th March 2002 - DAY 42

Starting point: Esfahan
Ending point: Semiron
Distanced travelled: 152 miles

Headed south out of Esfahan, aiming for Semiron where we'd heard that there was a waterfall that you could camp next to. We found Semiron easily enough, and even found signposts for 'abshar' the Farsi word for waterfall which we had remembered to ask our hostel manager for before we left Esfahan. However in true Iranian style the last and crucial signpost was missing so we ended up driving 20km past the turning and had to back-track. Eventually found the waterfall which was quite impressive - a huge torrent of water in otherwise very dry, dusty and rocky surroundings. The concrete platforms that had been built up all around suggested that this was a very popular place for the locals to come for picnics. We were mobbed as soon as we arrived by a large group of school girls who were very excited to see us - it was as if all those years of boring English lessons at a school in the middle of the nowhere finally had a purpose. We didn't dare open the roof tent until their coach had taken them away. A couple of men who had made a small fire invited us to join them for some tea before they headed back down to their village. Fortunately we kept the fire alight as half way through cooking our stove ran out of fuel we were able to finish off our food.

Thursday 14th March 2002 - DAY 43

Starting point: Semiron
Ending point: Shiraz
Distanced travelled: 215 miles

We drove through some of the best scenery we've had today: high mountains, fertile valleys and mud-brick villages. Just as we passed through one of the higher passes we noticed a strong smell of burning rubber and smoke coming out from the wheel arches - our brakes had gone soft from overheating. This wasn't an ideal situation given that we were at the top of the mountain and the road ahead of us was a long, bendy downhill stretch. We took the wheel off to check the brakepads but all seemed to be in order so we let everything cool down before continuing the journey via Yasuj to Shiraz. We bought a large felafel sandwich from a street vendor for 10p and a pint of freshly squeezed orange juice for about the same - life is getting cheaper!

On the road to Shiraz, somewhere near Yasuj

Friday 15th March 2002/Saturday 16th March 2002 - DAYS 44-45

We had given ourselves 2 days in Shiraz: one to explore the town itself, one to visit Persepolis. Not realising that it was a Friday we opted to spend the first day in town and it was only when everything (including tea houses and the bazaar) turned out to be shut that we realised our mistake. We did manage to visit a Mosque (of which the inside was elaborately decorated with bits of mirror) and the mausoleum of a famous poet (Hafez). The latter had a tea house in the gardens and we felt that we had sufficiently 'done' our cultural bit so spent the rest of the afternoon there relaxing. We drove to Persepolis (about 30 miles) early the next day and had the impressive ruins pretty much to ourselves to explore. One of the keepers let us sneak down into the tomb of Artaxerxes II (who?) which is normally out of bounds and was a bit creepy. On leaving Persepolis a man came up to us and whispered to us that we must inform the authorities as he had invented something that could be used as a dangerous weapon - we decided not to get involved! We spent the rest of the afternoon back in Shiraz doing internet stuff/laundry and took the car to a garage to replace the nearside swivel pin housing oil with grease to stop the oil leak that had been developing.

Sunday 17th March 2002 - DAY 46

Starting point: Shiraz
Ending point: Kerman
Distanced travelled: 403

Today's journey took us through rocky mountains, past a number of dry salt lakes and then flattened out into desert. We arrived at Kerman feeling pretty tired after the long drive and found our way to the 'Omid Inn' where we were welcomed by a very friendly man who had been in the middle of a spot of painting and was delighted to see us and literally ran around showing us all his rooms. The hotel had a large courtyard so we were able to bring the landie inside for the night.

Monday 18th March 2002 - DAY 47

Starting point: Kerman
Ending point: Bam
Distanced travelled: 99 miles

The ancient city of Bam

Spent the morning sorting out the landie (which involved packing and re-packing just about everything) then drove on through the desert to the small oasis town of Bam. The atmosphere here is totally different to the other places we have been to in Iran - mud brick buildings set amongst date palms and with a humid, warm wind that gives the town an almost coastal feel. As we were consulting the map to find our chosen hostel - the Akbar Guest House - Mr Akbar (an eccentric former English teacher) coincidentally found us and showed us the way. We sat and had tea and cake with him in a pleasant courtyard amidst the smell of honeysuckle.

[[POST TRIP NOTE: following the 2003 earthquake on Boxing day we saw Akbar on the news - it saddened us very much to hear that two of his sons had been killed and his guesthouse/livelihood destroyed. Needless to say, the 2000 year old citadel was also virtually destroyed.]]

Tea house at Arg-e Bam

Tuesday 19th March 2002 - DAY 48

Got up early to visit the spectacular walled citadel of Arg-e Bam - the remains of a medieval town made of clay, 6 km squared - before it got too hot. It was an interesting place to explore and the views from the top of the palace were great: you could really see get a perspective of the oasis town within the desert, and we could see no less than 7 tornados (dust devils) in the distance. I have no idea how hot it got but I remember seeing the thermometer reading 25° C in the shade as we had our breakfast at 8am. We ended up having to dash from one bit of shade to another and were relieved to find a tea house (above) where we could escape from the heat, rehydrate and wait for it to cool down a bit before returning to the hostel. Saw our first camels - even if they were just there for touristy purposes.


Wednesday 20th March 2002 - DAY 49

Starting point: Bam
Ending point: Taftan, Pakistan
Distanced travelled: 295

We headed off on our final stretch of the journey through the desert towards the Mir Jave/Taftan border. The landscape was fairly bleak, the most notable sightings en route were: 3 small clouds, several camels (including one young one -which was white, and a couple being transported in the back of a pick-up truck) and some nomadic tents. We were glad that the road was in good condition so we could travel fast - it was so hot (44°) the road ahead of us and the whole horizon appeared to be melting. We passed through a number of military check points - you used to have to have an escort through this part of the country - but were waved through. We arrived in the wild and woolly border town of Mir Jave at around 2.30pm which was earlier than expected. We had planned to stay the night in the only hotel in town, but it appeared to be totally deserted. We still weren't sure at this stage whether we would be allowed to take the car into Pakistan as it wasn't included in the Carnet when we left England and despite being assured by the PTDC (Pakistan Tourism Development Corp) that there would be no problem, we were anticipating some complications. We had also heard that there are different immigration queues for men and women on the Iranian side which could potentially result in one of us being allowed to pass through the border and the one with the vehicle not being able to - then the other one not being allowed back into Iran (does that make sense?). But we decided to head straight off to the border and try our luck...