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Monday, May 28, 2018

IRRESTIBLE IRAN


We have 3 weeks to explore this fascinating country. What a privilege…..but first we need to get out of Armenia & in to Iran. We start using our carnet here, and we will keep using it as it proves to be so much easier than our rego papers. Just over an hour later we are free in Iran. We are so busy congratulating ourselves that we completely forget to get vehicle insurance or a sim card.  We follow the Aras Valley – a gorgeous old trade route following the Armenian/Iran border & the Aras river. We stop at the next border at Jolfa only to find the insurance office is closed, and tomorrow is a holiday. Bother! Out of town we find a spot beside a dam for the night. It takes John a while to convince the night watchman that the police had said it was OK to camp here.

A good nights’ sleep and we are ready for new challenges. First diesel!  Naturally our tank is nearly empty as John knows diesel is much cheaper here than in Armenia. Mission accomplished! A full tank at a mere $30AUS for 210 litres – and that is double the local price. John can’t wipe the smile off his face.

We head towards the city of Tabriz, but instead of driving straight in to the city centre, as we usually do, we head to El Golu – a camping area marked on pocket earth. It is a huge park/amusement area set around a lake. Today it is packed as it is a holiday, but we find a spot here with lots of little tents. Iran takes tenting & picnicking to a whole new level.  GR2 secure, we find a taxi to take us to town. It saves us the hassle of negotiating the traffic & finding a carpark. Taxis are cheap about $2 for a 30 min ride & traffic is complete mayhem. Here usual road rules do not apply. I strongly recommend no one attempt to drive here unless they have nerves of steel. If the road has 3 lanes, they will make 6, motorbikes drive on either side of the road, cars park 3 deep or wherever they want to stop, roundabouts become massive snarls of merging vehicles, even red traffic lights do not stop the flow. And then there are pedestrians to add to the mix – they will cross anywhere, convinced you will see them & stop! There is no fear – total craziness. After a few days I have callous’ on my hand from gripping so tightly, and we have missed squashing cars many times by centimetres!

Anyway, we head in to the Grand Bazaar – every town has one. It is the usual maze of shops – the gold section, the spice section, the fabric (very glitzy I might add), and all the “stuff”. Then the next must see – the Blue Mosque, no longer covered in blue tiles, but still rather lovely inside. At this stage I will mention that the foreigner entry fee is excessively more than the local price. A bit galling, but so it is. After tea at a caf√© we head back to GR2 to find her mobbed. We are the tourist attraction today. The lovely Leyla asks us to her house (we think), so we climb in to her car – a novel experience – only a small car – her mother & son are in the front seat & we are squeezed in the back with her sister & nephew. And so, we go on an extended tour of the city in absolutely crazy traffic. Everyone is out celebrating the Leaders birthday. Leyla takes multi-tasking to a new level – driving, texting, phone calling, all the while changing lanes & stopping here & there. We must have seen every sight the city has to offer, plus met her English teacher & her family but we never get to her house? The craziest happening on our drive was having a tray of hot tea passed in through the window of the car as we are sitting in traffic & all of us (7) taking one. Free today as part of the birthday celebrations. Finally, we head back to GR2 pooped.

It is rather a late night as the locals stay up late here – picnicking! But time to move on. It is a bit grey today so we will miss the lake and head south quickly. We do stop and try to organise a sim card. Two hours later we give up. Later we realise we should have organised a VPN before we left Australia – another recommendation to fellow travellers.

By now we are in the Kurdish area. It is mountainous, cropped and has heaps of villages. Many of the men are wearing baggy pants & lots are in crazy baggy onesies! A whole new look worn by young and old alike. The ladies too are a bit more colourful, with glittery dresses beneath their black wraps. A bit of rain as we head south keeps us on the main road. When it is time to pull over for the night we find a spot beside the river on the old road.

Today we make an early stop at the town of Sanadaj, which makes it easy to park on the street. We head off to explore. There are some lovely old homes here. We look through the Asef Mansion – a lovely home with bathhouse and rooms set up with mannequins in traditional Kurdish outfits. Then wander through the Mashed-e-Jamah - an old mosque with some lovely tile work, before heading out to the markets that are in full swing on the streets. By the time we leave traffic is totally chaotic. It is Friday (our equivalent of Sunday) so everyone is out and about. More driving. There are some petrographs to see but the place is packed, so we give them a miss. More lovely driving until late, when we see a group of shepherd’s tents beside the river. We head down and are made very welcome. We have to camp beside them & are invited for tea (drink). As a storm rolls in we rush back to GR2 & the sheep are herded closer. It is torrential – it even hails. The track out becomes a torrent, but Iranian cars can go anywhere. They finally get out leaving us and the shepherds behind. In the morning we watch the shepherds pack up their tents and move their flock on.

Then back on the road and on through chaotic Khorramabad (all towns have crazy traffic it seems!) and start trying to fill with diesel. The first station has none, the next will only give us 60 litres! We are on an amazing new motorway with loads of tunnels, soaring rocky mountains & no petrol stations. In future we will fill up more often. Once through the mountains we are out on plains – flatness stretching for miles. And we are finally full of diesel (at a cost of $20 AUS…bargain)

We now have a few ancient sites to visit. First is the city of Susa – a hot walk around a few old rocks followed by a look at Daniels Tomb (yes another! We saw one in the Stans years ago) – it is rather tacky. I think Daniel would turn in his grave to see it! Then on through more flatness, hopefully in the right direction as signage is rather haphazard, to a 3000-year-old pyramid/ziggurat called Choqua Zanbil. It would be a great spot to camp, but it is still way too hot to sit outside, so we move on. Next destination is the town of Shusta where we want to explore the Shusta Historical Hydraulic Site. There is absolutely no parking so we find a spot on the street and walk back. It really is pretty impressive how so many years ago they dammed the river and then funnelled the water through channels to power their mills. By now it is late. On the way in to town we spied a spot beside the river so we head there. Nice spot, but not the most peaceful. Locals come to hang out beside the water most of the night.

We decide it is time to follow some back roads as we head south. Actually, a great decision as the road is good, traffic very thin & we enjoy the dry desert scenery with miles of pipes & lots of flaming wells.  Finally back in to farming areas with lots of “alfoil” villages as I call them – so many roofs covered with thick silver paper. Lots of cropping, mainly by hand. See lots of great spots to stop but decide to get a few more miles under our belt. There is a national park coming up – maybe we can camp there. Driving through the park is stupendous, with amazing steep dry mountains. We find a great spot well off the road, but the locals say” No No!”  Finally, down off the mountain we settle for a gravel pit as all the land beside the lake is cropped.

Our destination/next challenge today is Shiraz. We have found Azadi Park -a camping spot on our maps so head there. The guard beckon us in, we squeeze through the tight entry while I yell “No”. The guard finally realises we won’t fit and so drags his office over and in we go, only to discover not a single spot! In fact, cars are everywhere. We wait in the middle, blocking off lots of cars until heaps of guys arrive to leave. What fun watching the jostling to get out! Finally, we have a spot and can head in to the city to explore. First stop the not so old fortress -Arg-e-Karim, with its leaning tower, then on to the bazaar. The first area is carpet and this time we do want to buy one. The mats on our floor are really worn & sad so it is carpet haggle time. At the first booth we stop at we meet Sam & his partner. Such great service that John doesn’t even haggle – amazing huh! He takes us to his warehouse, then back to GR2 to try them inside. Over and above, Sam drops us at a great local restaurant & later ferries us about on various errands. Thank you, Sam. Later that night John goes out with Sam to get the forbidden stuff – alcohol. But earlier we continue our exploration of Shiraz, First the gorgeous gardens of Bagh-e-Naranjestan with its painted & mirrored pavilion. Secondly, we stumble on the massive new Aramgah-e-Sha-e Cheragh. I nearly give up when I realise I will have to wear a chador – a crazy huge piece of cloth to be draped all over me. But the complex is amazing. Love those blue tiles everywhere. Not so keen on the glitter inside the mausoleums.

The next morning is tagged for a visit to Masjed-e-Nusir-al-Molk when the light flows in through the stained-glass windows. Sadly, there is a row of tourist buses outside and the place is packed – and they all want selfies within the coloured lights. It still is very lovely. Then more meandering to the bazaar. We chance upon a camera shop and manage to get the loose screen fixed. Awesome – I was a bit worried about it. Stop for coffee so we can pull in emails before catching a taxi to a big supermarket we have been told about. Great to stock up again. Finally fill up with water from a generous neighbour before heading out of town.

This afternoon we are heading to Iran’s most famous ancient site – Persepolis. We stop beside a German campervan and head in. At least it is cooler this late in the afternoon. We spend a few hours exploring, before staying overnight right on the side of the road beside the German van & a Swiss one.

Rather than carry on doing the smaller ancient sites, we back track to Shiraz, bypass the city and head directly south through some more gorgeous scenery. Iran is definitely one very amazing country. As we head through some very rocky gorges we see a castle perched on top of the rocky outcrop. Further down the road there is Ardashir Khuse/ Castle which we stop to explore. Here we meet a lovely couple who invite us out to lunch at the local restaurant, their shout. We plot our route for the next few days with them & enjoy some great kebabs. More magic driving (Incidentally it is over 50deg today.) until by the end of the day we reach the Persian Gulf. For miles and miles, we have been seeing signs for The Special Energy Economic Zone and now we have found it. Miles of gas wells. We have never seen so many flaming towers.  We have also found the aqua blue waters of the gulf. We follow the coast for miles, finally finding a beach for the night. John goes swimming while I sit on the beach in my long pants, long sleeves & headscarf. I am not happy!  There are way too many locals continually arriving for me to sneak a forbidden swim.

At 10pm 2 police arrive. They want to see our passports & visas and for us to move to the police station. John finally convinces them we will be fine here. But annoyingly another 2 police arrive after midnight, bang on the door and start the whole process again. John is not very polite! They finally leave us. In the morning, not a soul in sight, I decide to sneak a swim. I am just out the door at 7am when a busload of school boys arrive. Bother – no swim for me. The boys all race in fully dressed and John gets his swim.

Lots more driving as we cruise along the Persian Gulf. Most of the land is flat & unbelievably dry, but there is also a range of craggy dry mountains & the road meanders to and from the coast. When we find a deserted beach, we stop for a swim – magic. No one in sight. Then we spy rows of large boats called lenges lying on the waters edge & stop to look, there are heaps of them in various states of repair. It would be a quiet spot to stop, but it is still hot so we make the decision to try and catch the car ferry over to Qeshm tonight. What a circus! First, we have to go through customs as the Island is a duty-free zone, then we are sent to the wharf. But no, they forgot to mention we need a ticket way back at the entry, so off John goes on the back of a motorbike. Finally, ticket in hand we wait and wait. All the trucks are jostling on the end of the wharf and cars are going everywhere trying to get on to barges. Mayhem as usual. Hours later we are loaded on to a truck only barge. It is getting dark by the time we land so we stop at the first beach we see. Sadly, it is near a village, so not all that quiet until a storm threatens and the locals finally go home.

We spend the day exploring this island frozen in time. The tiny village houses have badgirs/wind towers for cooling, many women are wearing their traditional face masks (we discover later only married women wear these) and there are boats pulled up everywhere. As we drive through the town of Laft we bump a low hanging power cable – oh no! We back out and exit town. We had planned on driving around the entire island but discover that the road turns in to an overgrown track with scratchy bushes on each side. Change of plan – retrace our steps and cross the island. Find yet another deserted beach for a swim before heading towards Qeshm city itself, stopping to explore a magic gorge. The city is a surprise – it is a huge building project in progress. Glitzy shops & malls. Definitely not our thing at all. We head to the ferry. Perhaps the crossing back on Friday night will be easier – and yes it definitely is. No trucks, so we are loaded with the cars. Before we know it, we are back on the mainland and heading towards Bandar Abbas on the motorway. But it is late so we are looking out for somewhere to stop before we reach the city. We spy a track in to the rocky hills…..follow it and find the track ends at a bulldozer still making a road. We head back and stop beside the track, but they insist we camp beside the dozer. The nightwatchman sits with us, then spends the night sleeping on top of the dozer!

Time to head north.

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