From Esfahan, we drove south towards Naqsh-e Rustam (a necropolis housing 4 tombs of Achaemenid kings). Since Iran decided in 2013 to jack up tourist entrance fees to a whopping 30x what the locals pay, most of us opted to skip out on visiting Naqsh-e Rustam since the carved rock face tombs were visible from the road. Next up was a visit to the ruined city of Persepolis (thanks to Alexander the Great for burning all the palaces and allowing his troops to loot the entire city for many months). What remains today is still breathtaking, so we can only imagine what Persepolis looked like in its heyday! Unfortunately since our original visit in 2004, access to most of the palaces has been blocked off and visitors can no longer stroll through the ruins…what a shame.
Next up was Shiraz, reputed to be the heartland of Persian culture. After wandering through Vakil Bazaar and checking out the Citadel of Arg-e Karim Khan, we spent the rest of our time here visiting the lovely Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque. This is one of Iran’s most popular because of its gorgeous stained glass windows combined with stunning colorful tilework, truly a photographer’s dream. We rounded out our visit to Shiraz at the Shah-e-Cheragh Shrine where all the ladies were provided free chadors in order to visit this holy site. An English speaking guide was also provided free of charge and we were allowed to visit the mirrored shrine. We enjoyed it so much that we came back here for sunset to soak up the lovely vista at dusk.
From Shiraz we made our way towards Yazd, bush camping along the way. We managed to squeeze 15 of us into a tent for a group photo, which was a good trial run for when there are 24 of us in Ashgabat in a few weeks, ha. Once we reached the desert city of Yazd, the temperature soared to uncomfortably hot levels for the first time since the trip started and the heat was unbearably draining. Before settling in to explore Yazd, we first visited two nearby cities of Meybod (the crumbling mud built Narein Castle is worth a view) and Chak Chak (Iran’s most important Zoroastrian pilgrimage site at the Pir-e-Sabz fire temple).
Our time in Iran is flying by…we’ll have some time to properly explore Yazd before making our way up north towards Garmeh and Mashhad, before crossing the border into surreal Turkmenistan. Stay tuned!
25 May – We were supposed to be checked out of the hotel by 8:45 am for our drive towards Shiraz. Becky was busy uploading content to the website, trying to squeeze it in before we had to be back on board the truck. It was actually an interesting experiment because as everyone else dropped off the wifi, the speed dramatically increased. With just a few minutes to spare, the content uploaded successfully and we were off, heading out in the direction of Shiraz. First we had a quick detour to the Esfahan City Center Mall for Robby’s group to do cook group shopping. The mall was fabulous…massive, shiny and new complete with countless snacks and shopping opportunities. The rest of the day was spent driving further south. Kate and Kyle scored an awesome bush camp by the Sivand Dam near Saadat Shahr. They had met the farm owner who gave us permission to camp on his land. So we happily set up camp, and were playing with the farm dogs and checking out a slow lumbering tortoise when we heard a loud scream. Poor Helen had somehow gotten tangled up in the top of the stairs with her runaway flip-flops. Since she was getting cooking oil for the meatballs, her hands were full and she went tumbling down a good 5 foot drop. Amazingly, nothing was broken but her pride as she sat soaked in oil and one of her legs scraped up pretty good. Robby came running to the rescue…the first thing he did was to pick up the free flowing bottle of oil. Cook group priorities! Kate was more merciful than Robby and she made sure Helen was alright and hadn’t broken any bones. Armed with a bag of ice and an ankle wrap, Helen was soon hobbling around camp almost as good as new. Phew, talk about the best excuse to get out of cook group duties, ha ha. After dinner, one of the farm boys asked if we wanted fresh milk or eggs. What a kind offer! Robby told him we could use about 1 liter of milk for tea & coffee, and ended up getting a massive 4 liter jug of fresh milk instead. Amazing. It was peaceful sleeping under the stars tonight…no rain fly was needed. Too bad the farm dogs didn’t get the message that Mark had planned to sleep under the truck tonight because at 2 am, they went absolutely mental and barked their heads off at his snoring. Everyone thanked Mark for the good night’s sleep in the morning.
26 May – Today we were visiting Persepolis. After leaving our campsite, it didn’t take too long for us to pull up to see the tombs at Naqsh-E Rostam. Across Iran, entrance fees for tourists had been jacked up 30 times the price of a local ticket back in February 2013. None of us were keen on forking over 200,000 Rials to visit the tombs since we could see them from the parking lot (albeit from a distance). So we gave Naqsh-E Rostam a miss, and saved our Rials for the Persepolis entrance fee instead (also priced at 200,000 Rials). This was much better value because the complex is huge and we had 3 hours to wander around. Sadly, many of the ruins that we had free access to in 2004 have now been blocked off. We were severely restricted in what we could take photos of which was a great disappointment. Thankfully, the main staircase with its phenomenal bas-relief carvings of visiting dignitaries is still accessible. We managed to spend all 3 hours happily exploring Persepolis and returned to the truck to find that cook group had already prepared a truck lunch in the parking lot, so Robby inadvertently got out of his last cook group duty. From Esfahan, it was a short drive to the city of Shiraz. Kyle pulled over so we could check out the Quran Gate on our drive in to the city. We were staying at the excellent (and centrally located) Sasan Hotel. After receiving our welcome drinks, we checked into our room and were relaxing when Kate stopped by to let us know that the UNESCO world heritage Vakil bazaar would be closed tomorrow (Friday) and if we wanted to see it, we should take a wander around today. So we took a 10 minute stroll from the hotel to the bazaar and saw the huge fortress that dominates the center of Shiraz. The Vakil Bazaar was worth a quick stroll, even though we weren’t keen on buying anything. We had just enough time to check out the sights before making our way back to the hotel to meet up with everyone else for dinner. Our group went to the nearby Haji Baba Restaurant…in retrospect, had we known that it was listed in the Lonely Planet, we would have given it an immediate miss. As it was, we crowded into our booths, ordered our meals and sat back to laugh at the carnage. SCUBA Gill and Kate had ordered a salad and vegetarian soup. They specifically asked Hossein a couple of times to confirm the soup was indeed vegetarian and was repeatedly assured it was. The salad was a joke, with onions served up in an artificial lemon juice. It tasted awful and SCUBA Gill refused to eat it after the first bite, offering it up to everyone else to try so we could laugh at how horrible it was. The soup was not vegetarian, served up with hunks of meat in it. When Kate complained, the waiter tried to insist it was vegetarian and quickly got a massive chastising from our entire group. He reluctantly took the soup back after both Kate and Gill refused to eat any. The rest of the food was marginal…Dya and Anthony were the only two happy customers with Dya ordering a delicious lamb meal and Anthony thrilled with his chicken schnitzel. Tensions rose when we tried to pay our tab. We were outraged that every single one of us was being way overcharged. The staff tried to explain that it was due to the way they calculated the 10% tax and 9% service charge but the group was now in full out revolt, arguing incessantly that it was the restaurant’s problem, not ours. SCUBA Gill refused to pay for either the salad or the soup and we left Haji Baba with a horrible taste in our mouth from eating at the worst restaurant of the trip thus far. You win some and you lose some…we would recommend avoiding this establishment if ever in Shiraz!
27 May – Shiraz sightseeing day. Immediately after breakfast, a large group of us went over to the Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque, one of Iran’s most popular because of its fabulous stained glass windows combined with intricate tile work. Entrance was 150,000 Rials which we happily paid. We just managed to beat the tour groups into the mosque, but within a few minutes, the entire complex was crowded with large groups of admiring tourists. From Nasir-ol-Molk, we went to the Madraseh-ye Khan. A cheeky old man sitting at the front door tried to charge us 100,000 Rials each to visit, but when Robby demanded he produce a ticket, we realized the guy was just taking the piss on a bunch of unsuspecting tourists. The school was closed for renovations and entry was free, so we wandered around before heading to the Aramgah-e Shah-e Cheragh (Mausoleum of King of the Light), which holds the remains of Sayyed Mir Ahmad. All the ladies were offered up free chadors to wear, and we were assigned an English speaking volunteer to show us around the shrine. It was an excellent free tour and we enjoyed being able freely take photos everywhere except inside the mirrored shrine interior. It was ice cream time before we returned to the hotel for an afternoon siesta. Such bliss to sleep in an air-conditioned room for a few peaceful hours during the heat of the day! Dinner was nearby the hotel at a fast food joint that the locals just go absolutely insane for with long queues outside the door late at night. Our shwarma sandwiches and fries were tasty, but we did question what was so special about the establishment for the locals to wait over an hour for the same food? At 6:30 pm, we joined Ichi and Lars for a return trip to the Aramgah-e Shah-e Cheragh shrine for some night photos. Our guide was shocked to learn that we had already visited earlier in the day and we just wanted to take photos in the courtyard. Happily, he agreed to accommodate our unusual request and he radioed for another guide to take the other set of tourists who wanted a guided tour of the shrine. For over 2 hours, he stayed with the 4 of us while we watched the sunset and the colors of the dome change over time. It was fabulous to soak up the atmosphere here as dusk turned to night. To reciprocate the favor, he conducted an interview video of us, asking about our impressions of Iran and Iranians and what we had enjoyed so far on our trip. Returning back to the hotel from the shrine, Lars was on a quest to fine a local shisha joint and he struck gold after several inquiries. This local joint was just behind the Ariana Hotel (close to our Sasan Hotel), and the orange shisha they served up was lovely, super smooth and flavorful, probably the best shisha we’ve ever smoked in our lives. We had several cups of tea, and ended up with 3 shishas (2 orange and 1 apple). Total bill was 350,000 Rials for everything and we gave our waiter a 50,000 Rial tip which he greatly appreciated. Great night out in Shiraz!
28 May – Goodbye Shiraz! We left the hotel at 9 am after breakfast and stopped for cook group shopping just on the edge of town. Then it was a long drive day towards Yazd with plans to bush camp tonight. We had a brief ice cream stop in the village of Abarkooh where we checked out an old mosque. On the drive out of town, Kate and Kyle spotted a hill top tomb nearby so we made a quick detour to check it out. It was properly hot today…the warmest day of the trip so far. We definitely were entering the uncomfortably hot weather zone. Our bush camp was just a little before the town of Dehshir in a dugout area in the middle of a dried mud desert. It was in the middle of nowhere and perfect for stargazing after dinner.
29 May – This morning’s challenge was squeezing in as many willing participants into a tent as possible…we ended up with 15 in the tent, Kyle and Mark outside and Daniel nowhere to be seen. 15 in the tent was fairly easy so we will have to challenge ourselves a bit more when we get a full truck in Ashgabat. After breakfast, we drove further south towards Yazd. Kate had taken a vote the night before to see if we were willing to visit the nearby towns of Meybod and Chakchak as well as the Towers of Silence (outskirts of Yazd) before stopping off at our Yazd youth hostel in the late afternoon. Everyone was in agreement and we pulled into Meybod for lunch. This village is a popular day trip from Yazd since its only 52 km north of the city. Highlights here were the Narein Castle (views from outside are just as spectacular as the ones from inside), an old caravanserai (now converted into souvenir shops) with its covered qanat (underground water channel). Nearby the caravanserai is a 300 year old post museum which we gave a miss. Lastly, a Safavid-era ice house caught our interest but we only admired the exterior since the entrance fee was prohibitively high. It was a sweltering hot day, and Connie discovered she could keep cool by dipping her headscarf into the ice-cooler. Brilliant! We all followed suit with our scarves and head buffs and it made a huge difference, comfort wise. Next up was the village of Chak Chak, famous for being Iran’s most important Zoroastrian pilgrimage site (at the Pir-e-Sabz fire temple). We hiked up the hill for the fantastic views and dipped our headgear in cold water in an effort to cool down. From Chak Chak, we drove towards Yazd and had to cut through town to reach the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence. These two barren hilltops are located on the southern outskirts of Yazd and even though we had visited them years ago, we decided to check them out again. Only Helen, Anthony and Kevin joined us, with everyone else deciding to remain on the truck. The plain circular hilltops were where dead bodies were left uncovered to be picked apart by vultures (Zoroastrians believe in the purity of earth), and we had fine views of the disused Zoroastrian buildings below. Then it was youth hostel time! We pulled into our lodging for the next two nights at the Hotel Khane Mosafer. The owners asked us to remove all footwear before walking on the premises, so we had to be barefoot indoors at all times. Thankfully they provided shower shoes to use in the bathroom and shower section since it was all common area and shared facilities. We were given 3 rooms to share between our group of 15 (Kate and Kyle had their own room), and Kate picked names out of a hat to determine room assignments. We ended up sharing a room with Daniel and Kevin, and Dya, Gill, Gunji and Andy got the other quad room. Everyone else was in a 7 man dorm. After room assignments, a group of us were craving some non-Iranian food and Kate mentioned that the Silk Road Hotel in downtown Yazd might cater to our needs so we piled into two taxis for the 8 km ride into town. Curry for dinner was a definite change to kebabs, and we enjoyed our meals. Then we were off on a quest to find sohan, the delicious toffee flavored Iranian treat that we had first sampled in Esfahan. Success at a local sweet shop where we met the very friendly Mahdi (who offered us free samples of various snacks until we left with our favorite treats). Back at the hotel, Robby befriended two local guests who invited him to their room for tea and conversation. He didn’t get to bed until the early morning hours and was given fruit roll-ups and baklava as goodbye gifts. Such is the hospitality of Iranians!