26. September 2019
The journey on a spacious, four-lane road towards the Iranian border is a long one. The landscape becomes emptier – our tension increases. We have heard that vehicles with engines from 2.5 litres upwards are no longer allowed into Iran. Other voices said that this only applies to cars, but not to trucks.
On the Turkish side of the border, officials are actually puzzling over whether to let us leave the country. Apparently they too are uncertain. Finally the barrier lifts and our departure is handled friendly and fast. Through a gate we drive a few steps over to the Iranian side of the border – and are in another world!
A modern four-lane access road leads from Van to the Iranian border on the Turkish side of the island. Also the whole border yard on the Turkish side (blue roofs) is top modern. On the Iranian side, however, the buildings and barracks are nested and the passage is narrow.
Another gate opens and we are allowed to enter the border yard on the Iranian side. The guarding soldiers and the border officials are very friendly and we are unexpectedly quickly “dispatched”. One of the border officials shouts: “You have a problem, it’s not your visa, but your car”. The pulse rate increases. Then another one demands our Carnet de Passage and after examination he says “You have no problem, you can pass through”. Unfortunately we cannot buy car insurance at the border. We are offered tea several times, a technician of the border station even wants to invite us for dinner. After stamping the Carnet de Passage we have a short vehicle check – a short look around in the living cabin – and the way is free even without vehicle insurance.
Drive to Khoy
The about 70 km to Khoy, the first town in Iran, we still manage well before sunset. The journey goes through an impressive mountain valley. At the park in Khoy one should be allowed to spend the night, therefore we want to go there. We actually find a tiny corner that allows safe parking during the night and stand there. Policemen of the police station opposite watch us. I ask if we could stand at this place and they kindly tell us that it is okay.
Help, we’re being frisked!
Kaum stehen wir an Ort und Stelle, kommen zwei Polizisten in grüner Uniform über die Strasse gerannt und verlangen resolut, dass ich die Führerkabine öffne – ich verstehe erst überhaupt nicht, was die wollen. Drinnen will er in alle Fächer und Stauräume sehen – ist damit zufrieden. Danach steigt er in die Wohnkabine ein und untersucht jedes Kästchen, auch unsere Wäscheschränke, einfach alles. Schliesslich scheinen sie zufrieden zu sein. Ein Zivilist – Mitglied der Geheimpolizei? – will unsere Pässe sehen. Diese werden gedreht und gewendet aber mangels Indizien uns wortlos wieder zurück gegeben. Immerhin dürfen wir unter den wachsamen Augen der Polizei über Nacht stehen bleiben.
As soon as we are standing on the spot, two policemen in green uniforms come running across the street and resolutely demand that I open the driver’s cabin – I don’t understand at all what they want. Inside he wants to see all the compartments and storage spaces – he is satisfied with that. Then he gets into the living cabin and examines every box, also our linen cupboards, simply everything. In the end, they seem satisfied. A civilian – member of the secret police? – wants to see our passports. These are turned and turned over but due to lack of evidence they are returned to us wordlessly. At least we are allowed to stay overnight under the watchful eyes of the police.
Meanwhile, all evening long men in plain clothes stand around our vehicle and discuss. At 9 pm, it is already dark, there is a loud knock on our door “open immediately” – I shout outside that I am coming, but I have to put on some more clothes. I open the door. This time a policeman in blue uniform stands outside, surrounded by some civilians. He asks us friendly which country we are from. We say “Switzerland” – what they don’t understand. I try “SWISS” aha, it seems to be familiar but probably SWISS is Sweden for you… well, so what, the main thing is that we can finally sleep. That’s right – that’s all. He and the people around him were happy with SWISS and closed our door again.
Because of the experiences of the previous evening we drive a little uncertain to Tabriz, our first stop in Iran. The beautiful landscape is hardly visible, so strong is the haze. The road is mostly extended, so that we only make slow progress. And we also have to get used to the driving style of the Iranians – but it comes quite different.
Through the middle of Tabriz
Unfortunately I did not check the navigation and as so often the Navi leads us through the middle of the city of Tabriz instead of outside, as planned But in the dense traffic we find our way relatively fast, because in Palermo it is even more lively. And, as it is Friday, there are no trucks – oh no: there is no truck driving here!
El Golie Park
For the next four days the parking lot at El Golie Park is our home. Here we can leave our MAN carefree and take a taxi to the city. Every city in Iran has one or more parks, which are used by the population for fitness training, family pick-nicks, camping and recreation – especially in the evening and deep into the night.
El Golie Park is a prime example of such a park and, as it is also in a “better environment”, it is also very safe.
Our first Invitation
As soon as our MAN is parked, a modernly dressed middle-aged couple with a cute four-year-old daughter stands beside our vehicle and asks us “where from and where to”. The two tell us that they would also like to travel as far as they can. They say goodbye – but come back soon with an invitation for tea. We make a fuss, as custom requires, but we accept after the two of them insist on the invitation.
As a guest gift we bring a large bar of our beloved Cailler chocolate from the Atelier series. The tea round with local sweets is lively. We understand each other immediately and both speak good English, which makes the conversation much easier. He and she have both studied and have a Master’s degree. Her apartment in a newer apartment building is of high quality and about twice the size of our apartment in Switzerland. In the living room a whole family clan can probably come together. The floor is covered with beautiful carpets with the pattern of Tabriz. We feel comfortable all around.
After the tea invitation, we stay electronically connected and are then invited for dinner. Meanwhile we also issue an invitation for dinner in a restaurant of your choice. But that doesn’t work out and we end up in the apartment again. Meanwhile, she has conjured up a regional dinner, which still makes my mouth water today. Again a nice evening.
The next evening he visits us together with his father-in-law on the mountain bike. Result: our next invitation to a dinner at the in-laws in the country.
(Out of consideration for the safety of our new friends we refrain from publishing a picture and from mentioning names)
Willingness to help
Today we drive to the city centre of Tabriz. We have three goals: a) change money, b) buy SIM card and internet data and c) take out car insurance.
The 300 Euros we use are quickly changed, but not quickly counted. One Euro is equal to 125’000 Rial = 37.5 million Rial and this in notes of 100’000 Rial. These 375 hundred thousand have to be recounted first and promptly, the recounting was worth it?
In a row of shops near the bazaar with different shoe shops I ask a young shopkeeper for a place where you can get a SIM card from IranCell. Without further ado Ali closes his sneaker shop and accompanies us. Finally we find an IranCell agency and get our SIM card within about 30 minutes, of course with the help of Ali, as he fills out the questionnaire written in Farsi for us.
If we need anything else? Yes, a car insurance. Finally Ali calls a taxi, which he apparently paid for online, puts us in protest and we are chauffeured to the Iranian car insurance company, where we have car insurance in our hands within 45 minutes.
Today we go again by taxi to the city. For half an hour’s taxi ride we pay between 150’000 and 200’000 rials, which equals Euro 1.20 to 1.60. We really can’t complain about that.
Our visit to the city has two main attractions: the bazaar and the blue mosque. Tabriz is situated at 1300 m above sea level and has a well developed traffic system. All progress comes from Tabriz. Tabriz is a source of progress – a driving force for Iran. This means that new technologies first arrive in Tabriz and then gain space in the rest of Iran. The people of Tabriz are aware and proud of this. The machine and car industry is located here, as well as one of Iran’s refineries. The majority of the population is of Turkic origin, who live in the north-east of the country. So now we dive in by taxi into the 3rd largest city of Iran with 1.5 million inhabitants.
The bazaar of Tabriz is one of the biggest and most atmospheric in Iran. We know the word “bazaar” from our childhood – but what we get to see, hear and smell here is so completely different from the event in the parish hall. Looking back we can confirm that also from our point of view the Bazaar of Tabriz must be one of the most beautiful in the country. The fact that the bazaar is not touristic can be recognized by the fact that one can visit it completely without any annoyance.
It was completed in 1465 and at that time it was world-famous for its perfectly composed tiling in cobalt blue. Probably in an earthquake in 1779/1780 the Blue Mosque collapsed. The reconstruction from 1973 on took 40 years. The missing tiles were not rebuilt, which is why the extent of the destruction at that time is visible today.
In El Golie Park we meet Hooman and Nermine – an Iranian artist couple. The two of them live in a VW van and live from their art. Hooman is also a sensational nature photographer. We are invited for tea and conversations arise. On the day of departure Hooman wants to take a picture for his Instagram Channel .
Continuing our journey
From Tabriz our journey goes to the Orumiyeh Lake (Lake Urmia). On the way we got a screw in a tire, so we drive to the next tire dealer. Here we get a very friendly welcome. Fortunately the screw is not so long that it could have punctured the tire. But the boss personally checks the air pressure in the tires. In the end everything is free and we drive on to the huge salt lake.
In the Garden of Eden
A special atmosphere lies over the Orumieh Lake.
A dense haze hovers over the salty water – as if the haze wanted to hide from us the Garden of Eden behind it, from which mankind was excluded in ancient times.
In fact, since the Van Lake region in Turkey, we are in the area where, according to the British Egyptologist David Rohl, the Old Testament paradise must have been located. According to the Old Testament reports, the paradise was surrounded by four rivers. The Euphrates and the Tigris have their source northwest and southwest of Lake Van in Turkey and are still known by name today. The Gihon and Pischon rivers flow east of Lake Orumieh in Iran, but are known by other names today. The river Araks was known as Gaihun (Gihon) in early Islamic times and flows into the Caspian Sea. David Rohl believes that the Qezel Uzun corresponds to the Pischon. It rises east of Lake Orumiyeh and flows into the Caspian Sea after only a few kilometers.
The mountains of Ararat, on which Noah’s Ark landed, are also located in this large landscape, just like the cradle of agriculture around Haran, which is located in the south of the former Garden of Eden and in the southeast of Turkey, on the border with Syria. From here (Haran) Abraham finally emigrated to the land of Canaan.
What a historical area we can drive through and visit. Exciting and great.
Lake Orumiyeh – also called “Urmia” or “Urmai” depending on the language – is with 5500 km2 about 10 times bigger than Lake Constance. On average it is only about 8m deep, at its deepest point 15m. In the winter of 2018/19 extensive precipitation caused the water level to rise by 1.2m. Nevertheless, the lake is in danger of drying out, as the water from the tributaries is diverted to water abstraction. This was not always the case. Before the Islamic revolution, grapes were mainly cultivated around the lake since ancient times and did not need to be irrigated. With the prohibition of alcohol in the country, interest in wine growing waned and many farmers switched to growing fruit whose trees required irrigation.
After Miandoab the road gets narrower, the traffic becomes much quieter and we can enjoy the lovely landscape with irrigated gardens. From Shahindezh on the road leads up into the “mountains”, which are more like a hilly plateau at 2000 to 2200 meters altitude. Up here, agriculture is still practiced and apple plantations bring their yield. Astonishing, if we consider what we find in Europe at 2000 meters altitude.
Palace complexes, a fire temple and other temples around a spring lake form the Takht-e Soleyman, the sanctuary called “Throne of Solomon” at an altitude of 2200m, far away from any city. It is not necessarily the remains of these archaeological cities that fascinate, but rather their remoteness and the history associated with them.
A mighty wall surrounds the sanctuary at altitude. The excavations revealed that Tacht-e Soleyman is identical with the Zoroastrian fire sanctuary Atur Guschnasp. In pre-Islamic times Zoroastrianism (Zarathustra) was the main religion in Persia. The Persian kings of the Parthian Empire, after their coronation or before important campaigns, gave the fire shrine their honour by climbing up to this shrine on foot.
The holy three kings
The Zoroastrian priests had great influence and great power in the Parthian Empire. They could even overthrow kings.
Researchers and historians assume that the “wise men from the Orient”, more precisely the “magicians from the Orient” who followed the star from the Orient to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, were high Zoroastrian priests from the Parthian Empire.
Police controls in Bijar
On a lonely stretch of road we continue to Bijar. We want to spend the night in the park at the beginning of this country town.
As so often, Iranian families sit on a blanket on the lawn of the park and drink tea. We are invited for tea and get in contact with a Kurdish family. But the communication is very difficult and finally only possible with Google translator on the smartphone. This city is not good to stay overnight, we should come with them. But the day is already slowly coming to an end and the trip would have been much too far with our MANs. So we stay like this.
Not for long, there is a knock on the door: the “green” police is standing outside with machine guns. They want to know where from and where to, they also want to see our passports – but we only ever hand in laminated passport copies. Finally everything is in order, welcome to Iran and have a good trip and shake hands.
Not very long, there is another knocking at our door. Two civilians are standing outside, turning out to be secret police. First a little small talk, then “if we are married, at which border we entered, what were our father and mother’s names, why we don’t have an Iranian license plate, our travel route, etc…”. Finally they want to see our passports and our visa and think it has expired! I show them the passage where it says: “Valid for 30 days after entry”. Shaking hands again, welcome to Iran and “good trip”.
In the meantime it is already dark and there is a knocking at the door again. This time it is the police with the blue uniform. I have to get out and stand in front of the vehicle with the police officer. But now I get my nuggi out and complain to the policeman that the “Greens” and the “Secret Ones” have already been here and checked us. Where is the coordination – obviously the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing! The policeman listens to this, greets briefly, gets into his vehicle and disappears again.
The following night was not very restful, not only because of the many young scooter riders driving around our vehicle like mad, no, the probing question robs us of sleep: Are we really driving through Iran with expired visas?
With one foot in jail
The question, “Has our visa expired or not?” is driving us crazy. The text of the visa can indeed be interpreted in many different ways. We use WhatsApp to send the visa to an Iranian friend. He, in turn, makes an immediate phone call to the head office in Tehran. His answer is clear: “Visa expired” – we are to go immediately to the nearest police authority which issues visas!”
The drive to Hamadan exudes a morning calm. But inside we tremble. Of all places in Iran without a valid visa? Are they putting us in jail now? We are afraid so we report every step to our friend via WhatsApp as long as we can so that someone knows where we are.
In the government building in Hamadan we are brought by a soldier into an outbuilding and here down to the basement. Strange? In a large room two elderly gentlemen have set up their desks. They confirm that our visa has expired. They scribble something on a piece of paper and the soldier takes us back out, holding me by the arm. He organises a taxi for us, which takes us through the alleys of the old town to a walled building reinforced with pointed iron bars. Also the taxi driver leads me by the arm, as if he had been beaten to take care of us. Here, the smartphones are taken away from us separately and we are scanned for weapons. Nobody speaks English or any other language we know. Of course that makes everything even more scary. On the first floor we have to wait. We have to hand in our passports and nobody is talking to us anyway but everybody turns to the taxi driver with the police order.
At some point we get a form to fill out – it is a visa application. We feel a little bit relieved and slowly the process comes to a good end. The person responsible for issuing the visa also speaks a few words of English. Payment by credit card is done by the taxi driver, because cash payment is not possible. The passport copies that we should have brought with us are made in-house and because our passport photos are still in the MAN parked elsewhere, an extension stamp is simply stamped and filled in on the original visas.
From parking the MAN in front of the government building in Hamadan to returning with a valid, extended visa, no more than 2.5 hours have passed. Our fear was completely in vain and the outcome was crowned with success: After all, our visa was extended by 50 days!
How would this have turned out if we as foreigners in Switzerland had been caught with an expired visa? We would like to thank our helping friend and the Iranian authorities of Teheran and Hamadan once again. So much kindness, correctness and generosity!
This tidy town is situated at an altitude of about 1800m, at the foot of the Almand Massif (3500m). Hamadan was founded by the Medes and was then called Hagmatana or in Greek Ekbatana.
We first visit the tomb of the mystic poet Baba Taher, who is worshipped here. Born around the year 1000, he was probably a contemporary of other mystical poets, such as Celaleddin Rumi in Konya. He was a dervish so far removed from this world that he was nicknamed “Uryan”, “the naked one”. His four-line poems, which are still recited today, have survived.
Genius doctor – scientist – philosopher – poet
Beneath the striking grave tower from 1952 is the burial chamber and a small museum. The today unbelievable wealth of his talents is expressed in his honorary title: Sheikh ar-ra’is – doctor of all doctors or the most excellent of all excellent.
Meydan-e Imam Khomeini
On the central main square we have a lunch break and in the inconspicuous restaurant “Shamshiri” we treat ourselves to a kebab, which tastes excellent, but with 1 million Rial is not quite cheap.
Tomb of Queen Esther
Esther means “star” in Farsi. She was of Jewish descent and the wife of the Persian king Xerxes I, under whom the Persian empire developed to its greatest bloom (see also below). A part of her history is recorded in the Book of Esther of the Old Testament. Hamadan was the spring residence of the Persian kings, while the summer residence was at Susa Castle in the Mesopotamian plain. Queen Esther encouraged the settlement of Jews in Hamadan and it is thanks to them that their tomb is still preserved and can be visited today. From our point of view it is the most dignified grave we have visited and the history surrounding Esther came alive for us. There are two sarcophagi in the tomb room, on the left the sarcophagus of Queen Esther, on the right that of her foster father Mordechai, who was a high royal official.
Gandnjameh lies in a mountain valley not far from Hamadan. The local recreation area of Hamadan offers a waterfall, which still carries water even now, in autumn. That is not the only reason why we drove up here. No, we are interested in the rock inscriptions of Darius I and his heir to the throne Xerxes I, who was married to Queen Esther. Well, we don’t really expect much more than a rock inscription. But since the inscription has been translated, it casts a spell on us.
The inscriptions, on the left the one of Darius, on the right the one of Xerxes, have a family tree and are chiselled in Babylonian, Old Persian and Elamic. They are well over 2000 years old and excellently preserved. Incredible.
Resting and refuelling
In Iran there are almost no campsites. But where can you stay overnight? Most larger cities have parks where you can stay overnight. If you are lucky, the parking space in the park is inside and is usually more comfortable. If you are unlucky, you can stand along the roadside and the cars drive past you day and night. In public parks you have to expect police controls, often in the middle of the night. Also parking places of sightseeings, hotels etc. are possible. Sometimes there is also the possibility to spend the night in the open nature. From side roads you turn onto a dirt road or a field path, if there are any in the region. All in all, the question of accommodation is not quite as simple as it is often said. If you want to know where we stayed overnight, please consult our “Itinerary” or our entries at “iOverlander”.
To fill up with diesel fuel, one would need a “diesel card” in Iran. However, this is not available for tourists. So how do you fill up with diesel?
In the run-up to the trip through Iran we heard voices that you would only get 50 litres per refuelling, that you were dependent on the goodwill of Iranian truck drivers and that you could not get any diesel “south of Yazd” and certainly not in the shipping city of Bandar Abbas.
Our tactics consisted of consistently refuelling after each consumption of at least 100 litres. During 6 weeks in Iran we stood 9 times at the petrol pump and filled up with 1000 litres of diesel. 7x 100 liters and 2x we could fill the tank completely (about 160 liters each). A third time we were offered 200 to 300 litres of diesel – but we only needed 100 litres and that was only 100 km away from Bandar Abbas. South of Kerman we could fill up 2x without any problems. Of the 9 visited petrol stations only one did not have a diesel card, but the petrol station attendant organised a truck for us, on whose card we could fill up.
Darius Relief Bisotun
From Hamadan we drive on the old royal road that led from Babylon to Ekbatana via Bisotun to Kermanshah. This old royal road passed in Bisotun at the foot of a mighty rock face, which was called “Mountain of the Gods” in ancient times. On this rock face there is a large relief of King Darius I. Darius had this relief built, after he had defeated the Kambyses of Gaumata, and other kings in 19 battles. The battle against the king of the Medes is said to have taken place in Bisotun.
The relief is about 5.5m wide and 3m high. The events from the point of view of Darius are carved into the rock in three languages, namely Babylonian, Elamic and Old Persian. Friedrich Georg Grotefend, a German school teacher, succeeded in deciphering parts of the Old Persian inscription in 1802. This preparatory work then enabled the British Consul, Sir Henry Rawlinson, to decipher the Babylonian cuneiform script, which was a breakthrough in the study of cuneiform script.
Darius I was the king who enabled the Jews to complete the second temple after their exile in Babylonia and also supported them financially. During his reign, the second temple in Jerusalem was consecrated.
We already in Hamadan, we currently travel in the territory of the Iranian Kurds.
In Kermanshah we are standing on the parking lot of Shahed Park. The secretary of the institute next door is coming straight towards me and kindly asks me to drive up a bit with our MAN, so that nobody can climb over our vehicle and its fence. I feel a strong, self-confident personality, despite dark Islamic clothing and headscarf. I am pleased about that. Later she gives us a book about the province and a box of addictive products: mealy but incredibly tasty pastries. We return the favour with a chocolate from Switzerland.
Even more Reliefs
In the park “Taq-e Bostan” further reliefs can be seen. As in Bisotun, these are located on a rock face with a spring pond. The spring water rises directly at the foot of the rock face.
The relief furthest to the right shows the inauguration of the Sasanid King Ardeshir II. (379-383), about whom there is actually nothing significant to report.
In the grotto next to it there is the relief of the kings Shahpur II. and Shahpur III.
The most important cave on the far left shows the investiture of Khosrov II, the last important Sasanid ruler of the Persian Empire. Well, we admire the old rock sculptures, but for us there are enough kings at the moment and we turn to other things.
And another Invitation
The Kurdish family we met in the park of Bijar urges us to visit them via WhatsApp. Although we are actually tired, we agree. We meet at an intersection. First we are invited for a walk in the city park. Afterwards we go to their home for dinner. What is noticeable: Kurds do not need a big dowry. Only the living room is big. They live and sleep mainly on the floor. Now we understand why the knotted carpets are so important.
Before dinner the men “sign out” and stand in a corner of the living room for prayer, very relaxed. Dinner is served on the floor. We are assigned a salon table. The food is again very tasty. We enjoy it. In order for us to talk, an English speaker was invited to dinner. He explains everything to us. After dinner more and more family members show up. Now also the sons-in-law come to visit. We are the object of desire. They want to see us. The next morning we have to have breakfast too. Only one man, one son-in-law is present, together with the women who prepare it. They want us to stay and take trips with the family. Kind people, these Kurds and all Iranians (except a few). Only in the traffic, there is no or rarely hospitality – but more of that below.
An offshoot of the Mesopotamian lowlands belongs to the territory of Iran. Thanks to sufficient water from the adjacent Zagros Mountains and an irrigation system, the plain is very fertile.
But first we have to drive many kilometres through the Zagros Mountains to get there. Finally we have left the unbearable traffic behind us. Hardly imaginable columns of passenger cars were on the east-west route to the grave of Imam Hussein in Kerbela, Iraq. Unfortunately, we were just on our way to the 40-day funeral ceremonies for Imam Hussein, which caused nervous, dense passenger car traffic and some restless nights over many kilometers.
Now we find more leisure and peace again and enjoy the drive through the mountains. Once again we find a quiet place to spend the night in nature – how good that feels. The old caravanserai and the old bridge of Mahi Dasht are also on the way, as well as lonely mountain valleys in partly bizarre mountain scenery.
Just in time before sunset we reach our destination: Shush the place with two legendary sights, the palace of SUSA and the grave of the prophet Daniel.
Since we cannot stay overnight at the castle Susa, one of the Susa guards guides us through the narrow city centre to a guarded parking lot next to Daniel’s grave. Around us small shops and we behind a wire fence. We are always amazed where everywhere we get through with our MAN, even if it often seems impossible. Here we experience one of the hottest nights of our trip, because the surrounding houses have stored the heat and in addition hardly a cooling breeze can get through to us.
Whether the prophet Daniel is really buried right here seems to be unimportant to us, but the grave is at least an indication that he was a historical personality. We have him to thank for the book of Daniel in the Old Testament, which by the way is exciting to read. Daniel was of Jewish descent and belonged to the Jews who were transported by Nebuchadnezzar to the Babylonian exile. So he lived about 2500 to 2600 years ago. Through his wisdom and faithfulness he gained respect, first with the Babylonian kings, then also with Cyrus I, the Persian king, who is so revered by the Iranians.
Muslims also worship the prophet Daniel. When they go on pilgrimage to Karbala to the tomb of Imam Hussein, Daniel’s tomb is also one of their stops.
The dome above the tomb is mirrored, hence this unreal lighting atmosphere.
The castle Susa is situated about 500m away from Daniel’s grave. Daniel lived partly in the castle Susa. Also the queen Esther, who was already mentioned in Hamadan, resided here with her husband Xerxes. The kings moved to a different castle depending on the season. Susa for example was the winter residence.
In the huge excavation area there are mostly only the basic structures of the castle left. So it takes a lot of imagination to make a “castle” out of it. But it must have had monumental dimensions, as for example the palace of Darius with 100 columns proves. Also the artistic decorations are astonishing again and again. It is oppressively humid and hot. One of the guards is hanging on our heels. Actually we would like to explore the site alone. But unfortunately nothing comes of it.
Tower of Babel
Of course we are not in Babel. But in Chogha Zanbil there is the best preserved Ziggurat, a stepped temple, like the “Tower of Babel”. It was built (and the city around it) by the Elamite king Untash-Napirisha around 1250 B.C. Its original height was probably about 50m – today it is still about 25m. Its base is about 100x100m.
On the way to Shushtar we drive for many kilometers through the plantations of the local sugar cane plantation. The people here, in this region, are more intrusive than in the rest of Iran, we conclude that it must be a slightly different kind of people. So also in Shushtar, where we feel besieged. Nevertheless we want to see the old water mills. The water is taken from the Karun River and drained underground. With the enormous water power the lower situated water mills were operated. Still today you can see the power with which the water finally pours out into a large basin. Although part of the complex is closed due to danger of collapse, we have to pay the full entrance fee.
Old bridges are also part of the cultural heritage of Shushtar, such as the Band-e Kaisar, the Keiser Bridge. It was a mixture of dam and bridge. It was used to raise the water level of the Karun River and to drain it into the irrigation channels. This was used to irrigate sugar terror fields as early as 600 AD.
Through the Zagros Mountains
The two-day trip from the Mesopotamian lowlands through the Zagros Mountains is challenging. It goes up high and down low, only to rise again soon after.
Der Herbst ist eingezogen!
One of the most magnificent historical sites in Iran is the ruins of Persepolis, about 60 km northeast of Shiraz. Persepolis (Greek) or Parsa (Persian) was the residence city in the Old Persian Empire. Darius the Great, father-in-law of the biblical Queen Esther, had this palace complex built after 515 BC. It is the same King Darius of whom we have already heard in Hamadan and Bisotun. The Darius who made sure that the Israeli temple in Jerusalem could finally be finished and inaugurated. We are fascinated by these historical connections, they give dead ruins a certain life.
Many Iranians are proud of their historical legacy, they are proud of the kings of their ancient Persian empire and often know an amazing amount about their history. Therefore, many also express their regret that Islamic circles are trying to erase all pre-Islamic history. But it is precisely pre-Islamic history that is an important reason for the Iranians’ national self-image.
Persepolis is great. In particular, the fine and frequent decorations on columns, gates and staircases.
Let us follow “our” King Darius one last time, namely to his grave. In the necropolis of Naqsh-e Rostam. Only the grave of Darius I the Great can be identified, as it is marked with his name and family tree.
Die übrigen Gräber werden dem Sohn des Darius, Xerxes, dem Gatten der Königin Esther und Artaxerxes II zugeschrieben. Die Felsreliefs an der gleichen Felswand stammen aus einer viel späteren Epoche und werden auf etwa 600 n.Chr. datiert.
The name Shiraz is known to many wine lovers. This grape variety bears the name of this city and was also intensively cultivated around Shiraz before the Islamic Revolution.
Although we are slowly getting tired of the many “sights” – we are actually more nature lovers – we still want to “take Shiraz with us”. But we soon realize that this city is much more touristy than the cities we visited before, because the price level for parking, taxis, entrance fees etc. is much higher. In other cities we had to pay – if at all – maybe 150’000 Rial for several days parking in a park, here it’s already 700’000 Rial for only one night. This is also only 5.5 Euro, but compared to the general price level it is a lot of money. It gets even better in the backyard of the tourist hotel ITTC, where 2 million Rial = 16 Euro are charged per night.
We start our sightseeing tour at the citadel, where we also find the bust of the conqueror Karim Khan Zand. The city owes many beautiful buildings to him, although his dynasty only lasted from 1750 to 1794.
The Parsmuseum is an octagonal garden palace built by Karim Khan Zand, in which he was buried at the time, but was later resettled by a later ruler. Not only the garden is worth seeing, but also the tiles with garden motifs and of course the interior design.
Shiraz is also called “Garden City”, which is quite correct. But our visit to Shiraz is at the end of its heyday, which is a pity and would be a good reason for another visit.
It was built in 1772 and resembles an Arabic court mosque, so it does not correspond to the mosques otherwise usual in Iran. The inner courtyard is huge and opposite the entrance to the prayer room, which is equipped with massive columns, there is an inner dome called “Ivan”.
Next to the Vakil Mosque runs the main street of the Vakil Bazaar, which leads us to the Koranic School, also built by Karim Kahn Zand, and on to the Baq-e Narestenjan Garden Palace.
Behind an inconspicuous brick wall lies the fascinating garden palace of the Qavam ol-Molk family. Only the “Buruni” can be visited, the part of the palace that used to be used to receive guests. Today it belongs to the art department of the university. Both garden and palace are very beautiful. The palace in connection with the mirrored ceiling is fascinating. But a horde of schoolgirls is besieging us visibly. Nothing of female restraint; they are eager for us to film and photograph them in ever new compositions. “Woe betide them if they let go…” in the end we are happy when the teachers ask the girls to leave.
Masdjed-e Nasir ol Molk
The ol-Molk mosque donated by the Qavam ol-Molk family is also called “Pink Mosque” because of its pink tile ornaments. We visit it in the early morning, because then the light falls beautifully into the prayer hall with its colored glass panes. But there we made the calculation without the tourist busses …
We want to see one of the famous gardens, the botanical garden. The entrance fee is with 500’000 Rial very high and does not seem to be justified to us personally, as we have already seen some botanical gardens that are more worth seeing. To put it a little casually, we did not have to come here because of the few trees. Probably we are just annoyed because the price is not justified at all. Also the cafeteria with its unfriendly service and the minimal offer turns out to be a flop. The water garden is dry and the roses are already mostly withered. They try to get the maximum out of it photographically, but still leave disappointed.
Camps in Shiraz
First we stand on the narrow parking lot of the Azadi Park for a few days. So that we can drive in, the parking house must be pushed aside. The parking lot is right next to a children’s amusement park and at some point we are tired of having to listen to the same Disney-style children’s songs all the time, so we change to the quiet and safe backyard of the Hotel ITTIC and use the (expensively paid) peace and quiet there to finally wash all our clothes again before we leave for the next stage.
Journey to the desert Lut
After the many tiring sightseeing tours we long to finally be in nature again. The 700 km over Sirjan, where we may stay overnight at the hospital, over Kerman to Shahdad we manage well in two days. Never before in Iran we had roads in such good condition as on this route. The road climbs several times up to altitudes around 2600m, sometimes without one noticing – only the navigation system gives information.
The Kaluts are weathered formations of pressed clay. They are located from about 50 km after Shahdad on the western edge of the Lut Desert. First we want to drive a lonely distance by the Kaluts, however, must turn around again, because we come across a not completely dry salt pan. About fifty to 60 kilometres further in northeast direction we find an entrance to the Kaluts. Officially, one may drive here only at most 2 km in, because the area stands under UNESCO protection. But the lanes lead much deeper into the area, which of course is very attractive. We spend several nights in the Kaluts. During the day it is extremely quiet and lonely, but to our regret the Iranians love to spoil your mood at night by constantly driving around with full headlights.
We also came here to finally record a star time lapse again. But unfortunately the Milky Way does not show its most beautiful side and there is still a lot of dust in the air. Nevertheless two time lapse films are successful.
We enjoy the days in the Kaluts to the full. How good it is – at least during the day – to be alone again in the middle of this vast natural area. We would like to stay here even longer, would like to explore more Kalut valleys, but we intend to leave Iran before mid-November, because our real destination is in Africa.
On the roads of Iran
Driving overland is usually without any special features, except for the fact that at any time a vehicle parked on the right-hand side of the road can drive off and slowly swivel into the road at a flat angle, so that even a simple passenger car can push a truck away.
On the other hand, a vehicle overtaking on the left can also brake shortly before you and stop on the right side of the road. Not a rarity. If we are overtaken by a passenger car, we are usually glad to have a front handlebar, because it turns in so close in front of us that we can already put our feet in it. Even from small side streets we take advantage of the legal precedence that is valid here. Unfortunately the many car drivers show little respect for trucks – so be careful. It is not unusual for a vehicle to approach us in our correct lane. But that’s not too bad, it always somehow finds a way past us as long as we swerve. In city traffic, two lanes of three, three lanes of five convoys of vehicles can then be used. It’s a bit tight, of course, but we’ve got it under control. Often only a few centimetres are missing from our bumper to the side car… Even though pedestrians are not considered in city traffic, they somehow allow themselves to wipe between the convoys of vehicles driving close together.
Driving on the roundabouts is especially funny. Here the following rules apply: a) clear right of way, i.e. those entering from the right have priority, b) the (reaction-) quicker one has priority over the slower one c) the taller one has priority over the weaker one It’s no exception that we turn the turn signal, because we want to turn right in front and someone overtakes us on the right side to turn left in front of us – or he overtakes us in the roundabout on the inside, although he actually wants to exit on the right via the next exit. As I said before, all this is funny and with time we are happy about the traffic, because now finally we are allowed to do things that are not allowed in the western world and would be severely punished. So guys, come to Iran and enjoy the traffic! N.B. I always wanted to drive to a roundabout on the left side for fun, but I didn’t make it, so I have to postpone it until next time.
Long live the “U-Turn”
The traffic routing is ingenious in Iran – and already partly in Turkey. Not always, of course. Here the U-Turn mentality prevails. Crossings according to European understanding are rather rare. Many roads are two or more lanes in each direction, separated by high islands. I now turn into such a road, my direction of travel continues to the left. But I cannot do that, because there is neither red light nor a passageway. So I am forced to turn right in the wrong direction and then find a place to turn around. This can be at a traffic light where I “U-Turne”, but mostly it is a passage in the direction separating islands. If well built, the island is widened at this point so that my tail doesn’t protrude backwards into the roadway, one way or another, I have to make it clear to oncoming traffic that I want to get in there when I do a U-turn. That means, I push myself into the oncoming traffic at the next only small gap, hopefully the vehicles of the passing lane will stop now. Now I still have to convince the other lane before I can start and when I have done that, I can finally continue in my desired direction.
Ban on trucks
Actually, in most cities trucks are banned. We mostly ignore them, because we are not “commercial”, yes, and we don’t have the local knowledge to know where in the city you are allowed to drive through as a truck. A truck route is only very rarely signposted. Yes and finally we have to be able to drive to a park to stay overnight or to a supermarket to shop. Who thinks that we would have had to include different buses in our budget is wrong. We were not even prevented by the police from driving the truck ban.
On the way to Bandar Abbas
Tomb of Nureddin Nematollah
Nureddin Nematollah was a Sufi master worshipped in Mahab, 40 km outside of Kerman. Even today he still unites most Sufi followers of Iran in his order. Sufis are mystical Muslims who have dedicated themselves to simplicity. We visit his tomb on behalf of the infinite number of Islamic holy shrines in Iran that we have not visited. The whole tomb is very well maintained and architecturally pleasing. Nevertheless, we are drawn on.
Rayen is situated at about 2200m altitude and is on our route to Bandar Abbas. We spend a quiet night in the cemetery parking lot, right next to the clay citadel. Two more days of driving and we arrive in Bandar Abbas with almost a full tank. 100 km before Bandar Abbas we were able to fill up again without any problems – despite all the prophecies of doom.
Pictures on the wall
Many villages honour their martyrs / heroes with large pictures, like here at the cemetery of Rayen. Whatever they did to get them to come to this honour we do not know. But we assume that their families would rather have them alive in their rows than painted on the wall.
The journey continues
From Rayen the road climbs successively to over 2900m. Even at 2900m people still live, but in great simplicity, not to say poverty. After all, the earth is still fertile at this altitude. But the winters must be hard. Autumn has come and according to the weather forecast we have caught the last warm days. At over 3000m altitude we already have the first snow. This encourages us to move to warmer regions.
We have a few days until shipment. Soon Alex and Sabine from Bavaria will join us and also the duo of Trail Punkz – alias Janina and Peter, who travel together with the American-Hungarian Stephen.
Here we get change again for paying the ferry, do one last shopping and are allowed to fill up our water tanks at private persons, because we can’t find any other possibility. Once again we experience the help and friendliness of the Iranians, which we have learned to appreciate so much.
Sculptures on the beach
Did the Iranians consciously or unconsciously place these rope-pulling sculptures on the edge of the Persian Gulf? We do not know. We don’t know the intention. However, the sculptures seem to us to be symbolic of the rope pulling with other nations that has been going on for many years. We would be happy if this rope pulling within the international community could come to an end and peace could be established. We would like to come again, next time perhaps even longer. So please take care, dear Iranians.
Shipment to Sharjah
The Sorouh Beach Park, where we stood the last days, is only about one kilometre away from the state shipping company Valfajr Shipping. We are served immediately and receive our tickets for Saturday, November 9, 2019 within about half an hour. We cannot pay here, only at the port. We also cannot be told the price for the shipment. Only Mr. X at the port would know that.
On Saturday we will be at the port on time together with Stephen. There our “Fixer” is waiting for us – the one who fixes everything for us. Indeed, we can sit and wait completely relaxed and in the end the whole process is finished completely relaxed for the three of us. We even have time to eat in the nice canteen on the upper floor of the harbour building. The lunch is even very good.
Although all our papers are now in place, we still cannot pay for the shipment because the authorized gentleman is not yet present. Only shortly before the departure we are told the price and we can pay partly in Iranian Rial, partly in US-Dollars. At the “departure” from Iran and before boarding the ship, again long and seemingly pointless waiting times follow. Then everybody has to get on the ship and there is dinner. A strange feeling, because the vehicles are still standing ashore.
They have now delayed the loading of the vehicles until we can finally drive backwards onto the ship in the worst thunderstorm imaginable, of course with very limited visibility! They have no idea about ferries and the loading of vehicles, when we think about the ferries to Morocco and Greece, where everything has to go jerk-jerk-jerky For the ferry from Ancona to Igoumenitsa we paid a good 700 Euro for 10 hours of travel including a spacious outside cabin. The ferry Bandar Abbas – Sharjah costs more than 1000 Euro for about 10 to 12 hours travel.
A pro pos ship: The ferry to Bandar Abbas is not a ship for us, rather a small boat. Ridiculous. Therefore of course no services on board. The best thing is that we have to spend the whole night in these dirty armchairs. It smells unpleasant and muddy. There are cockroaches in the upholstery… In a convenient minute – everyone is busy with the casting off of the boat – we sneak down into our MAN and sleep wonderfully despite the rocking in our own beds. Stephen also sneaks into his vehicle secretly. We are only discovered the next morning when only two of the four drivers are present. Never mind, we are over there.
Hi Vreni & Ernie
It is so great to hear from you. Many thanks for your wonderful report.
All the best for the new year and hope to see you sometime .
Nelus & Andrea
Hi Vreni & Ernie,
Thanks for sending us an update of your travels. How I would love to do this. Your report is excellent, I enjoyed every moment of your trip. Your photos are excellent as usual. We are glad everything went well in Iran and that you could tour through the country without many problems.
We just had Christmas with our sons, their wives and the grandchildren. Wonderful time together. I will still read about your Christmas and where you spent it.
May you have a wonderful New year and may you travel safely.
Ben & Bokkie