So, all along during our stay in Iran, everyone kept repeating – “Have you been to Isfahan, Shiraz? You got to go there, you got to see!” The thing is that they are quite far away from the route in Iran that we had in plan and also from the route we had to do in the end. To cycle 940 km to Shiraz or even 450 km to Isfahan and then the whole way back would take too much time, and to take busses all the way would deplete our already empty wallets too quickly. But we knew that we had to go – in the end we decided for a one-way ticket to a night-bus ride to Isfahan which cost us each 270’000 IRR and to try our luck in hitch-hiking to Shiraz and afterwards back to Tehran.
We woke up in Isfahan at around 5am. Not that we slept much or well in the bus, and not that we were that ready and willing to go walking and sightseeing for the rest of the day. We also had a task to do firsthand – to go to the Police Department of Alien Affairs and extend our visas. We failed miserably on this mission which was a huge letdown. Our morale was lower than the Dead Sea and we just wanted to go to sleep rather than embrace the Persian cultural heritage. The thing was that we did not really have a place where to go – we didn’t take any camping stuff with us, and we didn’t have an arranged host in the city. But, as always in Iran, everything works out fine in the end.
Before we got ourselves a place to stay, despite our feeble legs and sleep deprived eyes we managed to visit and see some of the most famous sights of Isfahan in the Maidan-e Naqsh-e Jahan (“Image of the World Square”). This is one of the most historically and culturally rich city squares in the world and I don’t feel capable or competent enough to describe all that can be seen here. There is also no need – just read Wikipedia or UNESCO World Heritage list, or some travel guides on Isfahan. But seeing it yourself really leaves an impression of awe, even for such a culturally ignorant individual as me. The mosques are massive but at the same time, with such a tiny details, and everything looks modest and magnificent at the same time. There’s the Persian proverb “Esfahān nesf-e jahān ast” (Isfahan is half of the world), that really seems true, and I could add that it is at least three quarters of Iran or Persia. It is a pity that if you want to see these buildings from inside, you have to pay 150000IRR (~4€). It is not that much for ordinary tourist, of course. But note that the entrance fee is paid separately for each place, so, if you want to see all, you have to multiply this amount several times.
What also struck us when we first stepped into the square – the place is literally swarming with tourists. We knew that Isfahan is the “touristic” place of Iran, of course, but we did not imagine that there would be so many of them. Before, excluding the few fellow touring cyclists from different countries, we hadn’t really seen foreigners elsewhere in Iran. It is self-evident now – they are all here!
We had a place to stay now! We met our new host – Sam and accepted to retreat to his apartment at once. We thought that we will have a few hours rest and then go back to seeing the sights but turned out that he lives further away than we expected. Isfahan city bus suddenly entered the highway and took us out of the city – to the new planned city of Baharestan, about 25km away from all the sights. So, decision was made to go explore Isfahan the next day and stay with Sam for two nights. He would have chained us to the radiators, probably, if we didn’t promise that we will stay more than one night anyway – the hard-core Iranian hospitality kicked in again. “You know, I will be very sad if you stay only for two nights, it would be the best if you stayed with me at least two weeks, or a month, maybe…” There is the peculiar fact about Iranians that, the same as they can’t comprehend that you don’t understand Farsi, they can’t also comprehend that you have certain limits of visiting them for a very long time. You say that your visa is going to end and that is some serious stuff but they just keep repeating their offers for staying for a month.
In the morning Sam admitted that he almost didn’t get any sleep because he was so worried about us not feeling comfortable enough. Before going out to town, he dressed us up in his clothes (we put ours in the laundry), re-dressed some of us (“Dainis, I don’t think that you feel like yourself in this shirt, try something else!” and then we were ready for an excursion. He said, he is taking us to a special sight – Monar Jonban or “The Shaking Minarets”. YES, that was a really ‘special’ experience for us but NO – do not go to the shaking minarets. You can see a lot of much more interesting and meaningful things while in Isfahan. Time spent anywhere else in the city will be time better spent. The place itself is out-of-the-way compared to other famous sights of Isfahan, so firstly, you need time to get there. A notice on the wall reads “The Minarets are shaken each hour.” So, secondly, depending on your luck, you may have to just sit and wait for an hour to see the next shaking. Our luck had gone on a vacation and we sat there for almost two hours. Not much else to see in the territory. And you cannot really afford to go around it anyway because then you would risk of missing the attraction. There is no announcement when will it happen or how will it look like. When it finally happens, THIS is it. A big guy climbs up one of the minarets, hugs it from the inside and, well, shakes it. It is over in a minute but leaves an imprint in your head for life. Like a brain tattoo.
Half of the day was already well-spent, we managed to get back to the center and see the Sio-Se-Pol bridge and then the evening twilight had already arrived. We visited some more bridges and went home. Final notice – if you want to see Isfahan – see Isfahan, and leave the Shaking Minarets part to Youtube.
The next morning came, the morning we had already told Sam, that we would leave. Still, he was very sad and surprised about our getaway plans. It was time for us to try out hitch-hiking in Iran. Could it be that hard, given that everyone always is so eager to help out foreigners? It could – this is a completely unknown concept for Iranians. Drivers just think you are trying to catch a taxi, so they don’t even think of stopping if they are not taxi drivers themselves. But we were smarter than that, that’s why we held out a second carton sign next to the “SHIRAZ” one – “NO TAXI”.
Eventually, drivers who stopped, tried to take us to a bus terminal or to arrange a taxi for us. Or just explained that in this particular place, the bus does not stop (because we certainly do not understand that, standing in the middle of nowhere). It is really hard to make Iranians understand the concept of hitch-hiking even to those who speak English but plain impossible to the average Iranian.
Somehow, we managed to move more and more towards Shiraz. While sitting in a truck, we just observe the driver making frantic phone calls to everybody and speaking in Farsi with great zest. The only words we understood from his calls were “Shiraz, no money, no taxi!”
We were in another truck, closing in on Shiraz, when the evening creeped up on us again. We had, probably, arranged that we will stay in the home of this truck driver and that he, probably, lives in Shiraz. He did not speak any English – that kind of “probably”. This is how we ended up in a Persian wedding party in the town of Akbarabad, 50 km South of Shiraz on that night. Laura got taken by the gang of lassies, meanwhile Dainis and I were led to a concrete floored yard where there was an incredibly loud music and incredible amount of men dancing. Essentially, it was a mosh-pit, encircled by men, holding hands and slowly moving around in a circle. And then there was this guy, wallowing around, dressed in a bizarre yellow costume (just like in the moshpit video) and a man walking around the inner side of the circle and swinging in the air something smoldering, tied in a string. So, only men in this half of the party. We couldn’t even imagine in what kind of activities was Laura involved at the same time someplace else. We didn’t spend a lot of time in this crazy ruckus, because Roushan – our truck driver – had to get up really early in the morning to depart for work and also because it was simply too crazy.
Roushan had to present his tanker truck at the Shiraz Oil Refinery, 7am, and we had a choice to make – either we get off in Shiraz and see the city or we go to Persepolis (before I thought that it is actually in Shiraz, but turned out that it is 60km NE of the city itself). We needed to be back in Tehran soon to do visa-business so we could not afford to stay more nights around Shiraz.
We went for the old capital of the Achaemenid Empire. Well, this is one of the places, it is worth to leave your 150 thousand rials for the entrance (unlike the Minarets). No need to rewrite the history and significance of Persepolis here, again – just read UNESCO or Wikipedia for that matter. The curious thing that will not be in any guide – you can also see the historical plastic-bottle-pit here.
There was no information about it on the site either so we can only guess for what purposes King Xerxes the Great built it. But one thing is sure – we need to rewrite the history books of chemistry – polyethylene was already being produced before Christ by Persians. The observed shortcomings managing a World Heritage site of this importance are surprising, e.g. the plastic-bottle-pit, broken fences, missing or unreadable English plaques or staff that does not speak English. Ah right, but we are in Iran, we are not in Germany.
Persepolis is full of tourists both Persian and foreign and it is still amusing how sometimes you feel that some Iranians are not here to see the ruins but to take pictures with foreigners. Even in a place where you think they should be used to see a lot of tourists, you still got to take part in so many photos and selfies.
We got to Tehran even sooner than expected – we hitched another truck right on the highway near Persepolis and 900km and 14 hours of trucking later we were once again in the modern day capital of Persia.
Again, it was hard to persuade the truck drivers that we cannot really go another 1000km to their hometown. As always – exchanging details, phone numbers and mutual promises of visiting each other sometime in the future. This led to a mind-boggling thought – what if all the people we’ve left our addresses or phone numbers to really came to visit us in Latvia one day… Roushan was one of the 8 brothers in his family, and some of the brothers already started inquiring about the life in Latvia. Of course the possibility of everyone coming to visit us is close to zero. The possibility of even a single Iranian coming to visit is probably also tiny. These promises given to and received from Iranians are usually not to be taken serious, just another display of taarof.
(If you are interested about practicalities of getting some visas in Tehran and extending Iranian visa – read the next blog post.)