Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Down to the Persian Gulf

Just when I thought things couldn’t get better in Iran, I was in for another incredible couple weeks. The road south of Shiraz took me through some interesting terrain, and perhaps some of the most scenic I had seen yet in Iran. I love deserts (I grew up in one in South Africa), so am somewhat biased towards them! Abbas had given me location details as to where I could find the endemic Pleske’s Ground Jay on the way, but the site was still a little too far east. I wanted to see as much of the Persian Gulf as possible, so took the road via Firuz Abad, cutting straight southward towards the coast. The ground jays would have to wait until my next visit.

I couldn't tick this rooster and turkey for my bird trip list!

I got more invites for stay overs during the seven-day cycle to the coast, and always gladly accepted. The first was just south of Shiraz, where I was invited by a shopkeeper to take rest in the sleeping quarters above the shop. He shared his dinner with me, which his son had brought to him from home.
Shopkeeper (right) with family in front of his shop, south of Shiraz.

An old bridge near Kavar, southern Iran.

Iranian lads, keen to chat and test the horn on my bike.

Road workers who invited me for lunch, beside a scenic river valley.

A first-class camping spot! Couldn't have wished for better.

While I always enjoyed being invited in, wild camping in the arid countryside still delivered its own pleasures, most notably the dawn chorus of birds. One morning near Ahmad Abad, I woke to a whistling call completely unfamiliar to me, but I suspected what it was. Peering out of the tent with sleepy eyes I was greeted by a family group of Afghan Babblers making their way up the small gulley. The sentinel was perched at the very top of a bush as usual, watching for any approaching danger and ready to give the warning call to the rest of the group. My head appearing slowly from the tent was enough of a danger sign and the group of six birds darted to the safety of the bush. But hunger got the better of them and they were soon hopping along the ground again in search of food, providing a photographic opportunity. 

Afghan Babbler foraging on the ground; delightful birds these babblers.

A second babbler joins the sentinel on top of the bush.

A scenic river on the way. I saw my first Green Bee-eaters here.

A pair of White-eared Bulbuls.

A friendly Iranian herder approaching me for a chat; he invited me for lunch.

Open plains after a spectacular descend from the mountains.

Back on the road I passed through some spectacular river gorges and over equally impressive mountain ranges, with Persian Wheatear, Southern Grey Shrike, Hume’s Wheatear, Scrub Warbler, Water Pipit, Black Redstart, Desert Finch and Desert Lark being regular species. The odd Isabelline Wheatear also made an appearance on old crop fields. Brown-necked Raven, See-see Partridge and Green Bee-eater were lifers for me, while Blue Rock Thrush was a surprise. I still don’t have a photo of this beautiful bird! A brief stop at some roadside stalls gave me a chance to photograph a rather bold Bluethroat; my stalking behaviour drew quite a bit of attention from pass-byers! I missed my second chance to get confirming views of a potential Black-throated Thrush, so I am still missing this one on my life list. 

I just managed to fit my tent on this narrow ridge, but it was worth the trouble!

A roadside stall.

The bold Bluethroat at the roadside stalls.

A splendid male House Sparrow posing for his photo.

About 20 km north of Jam city, I met Akbar who was returning home after a long trip north on his motorcycle. He was very keen that I spend the night at his home, so he rode slowly ahead of me for the entire trip to Jam. I was having such a relaxing stay at Akbar’s I ended up remaining for two nights. Akbar always told me to ‘take rest, take rest’, and so I did! He asked me to help him with the pronunciation of English words, so we often spent time paging through an elementary English study book. His delightful children would sometimes take interest and join in. 

Akbar (left) and a close friend in Jam city.

Akbar's children.

I saw my first Indian Roller just minutes after departing from Akbar’s; perching quite comfortably on the wires near the residential zone. This species closely resembles the Lilac-breasted Roller in Africa, but lacks the tail extensions and has a bluish cap. The final stretch of road from Jam city to the coast was mostly downhill, so it did not take long to reach the coastal town of Siraf. I was hoping to do a day of guided diving here, but the strong winds blew my chances at getting submerged. As I cycled into town, a motorcycle sided up to me and I was asked to follow. Ok, I thought, lets see where this leads! Further down the road we pulled up in front of a stationary shop. The owner, Mohammad, was a well-known personality in town and also an accredited tour guide, with a vast knowledge of the area’s archaeological and historical treasures. I was invited for a delicious lunch and given access to internet, and advised to take rest. I had been resting long enough at Akbar’s, but was happy to take an afternoon snooze on the bed laid out for me across a Persian carpet! Later, Mohammad organised a friend to take me to the Siraf stone-cut graves. While some of these were indeed used for burial, it is believed that most were used for water harvesting. 

Walkway leading to the stone-cut graves at Siraf.

The Siraf stone-cut graves, most of which were used for water-harvesting.

With Mohammad (centre) and guide at the Siraf stone-cut graves.

Mohammad later joined us and shared more information on the site, before we headed back to his home under rain-promising clouds. The next morning I got another free tour, this time at the Nasuri Castle in town, which was built using only mud, gypsum mortar and stone. Although quite weathered, and under-restoration, it looked surprisingly good for a structure that was built in the early 19th century. The castle, which looks more like a palace, has a large square-shaped ventilation tower perched above it. The tower was designed in such a way to direct air (from wind) downwards and across a pool of water in the castle; the cooled air was then allowed to circulate through the rooms by means of large openings in the walls. An ingenious design! Mohammad also took me to the museum in town, where numerous artifacts excavated during the 1960s and 1970s were on display. Archaeological and other evidence now shows that the Persians were geniuses in seafaring, and had international relations and interactions with other distant civilizations and cultures. In its day, Siraf was the most important port in Iran during the 9th and 10th centuries AD, when the Persian Gulf was used as a shipping route between the Arabian Peninsula and India via the Arabian Sea. The population of Siraf was wealthy and lived entirely off maritime trade. 

A view over the coastal city of Siraf.

Inside the courtyard of the Nasuri Castle in Siraf.

The cooling tower at Nasuri Castle, Siraf.
Inside the museum at Siraf.
One of a few beachfront areas in Siraf.

From Siraf I headed down the coast in the direction of my final destination in Iran, Bandar Lengeh, to catch the ferry to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. It was still a 350 km trip to Bandar Lengeh, and my visa extension was steadily running low on days. It was great to cycle along the coast. While it was hotter than anywhere else I had been in Iran, the fresh sea air was refreshing in a way (the weather had actually been perfect for cycling during my time in the country). A host of new birds presented themselves along the way, including my first Western Reef Heron and Purple Sunbird, as well as Little and Alpine Swift. Green Bee-eaters and Indian Rollers were common and regularly seen perched on roadside wires, while I was always pleased to see groups of Afghan Babblers. 

A pair of Green Bee-eaters.

Nice coastal road. Little traffic and great scenery.
At Parsian I deviated from the main road to stay close to the sea, so took the less traveled road via Bostano and Chiruyeh. It was a wise decision. While the road eventually turned to gravel, the scenery and rock formations were breath-taking. Green Turtles could be seen swimming and foraging in the surf from road where it traversed the top of steep cliffs. Great Cormorants would also occasionally pass by while a soaring Osprey was a surprise. The water reservoirs that I first laid my eyes on near Bandar Mogham were an intriguing sight from a distance. Once I got closer I was keen to find out what they were, and was surprised to see them filled with water. They seem to be designed in such a way as to trap surface runoff through their four entrances, with their domed top ensuring that minimal water is lost through evaporation.  

A Green Turtle foraging in the surf.
Water reservoirs near Bandar Mogham.

More water reservoirs along Iran's coast.
The coastal road delivered a number of more firsts for me. Striolated Buntings were often seen in pairs beside the road and Desert Wheatears perched conspicuously on bushes. Hume’s Wheatears were abundant; at least I figured most of them where Hume’s as I still found it difficult to tell the difference from potential Variable Wheatears. Hume’s has a more glossy head and more white extending up the back, but these features were hard to guess even at the best of times as I was unfamiliar with these species. Crossing a small river I was urged to stop by the shape of a wader in the shallows. It was a Common Redshank, accompanied by a smaller bird which turned out to be a first for me, namely Broad-billed Sandpiper! Curlew Sandpipers were also about, as well as Lesser Sand Plover and Terek Sandpiper, which were a real delight to see again. Kentish Plovers, Greater Flamingo, Eurasian Curlews, Common Greenshank and Bar-tailed Godwits were other wader species seen along the beaches and miniature lagoons. More surprises came in the form of Caspian Tern, Slender-billed Gull, Dalmatian Pelican, and Common Kingfisher.

The coastal road scenery was one of a kind, for me at least!
A Broad-billed Sandpiper.

A male Desert Wheatear.

Two Curlew Sandpipers and a Lesser Sand Plover (right).

I practically had the road to myself. I believe this route is popular with cyclists.
Camping by the sea along a remote stretch of road. Absolute bliss.

After camping the night close to a remote stretch of road, I got to see my most desired bird species in southern Iran. At first I thought it was a shrike, but upon approaching closer I realised it was a male Hypocolius! A truly intriguing bird, and no wonder it is in its own bird family. Being somewhat alert I was not able to get close for a photograph, but then I was so pleased with the sighting I really couldn’t care. White-eared Bulbul, Desert Lark, Crested Lark, Purple Sunbird, Green Bee-eater, Afghan Babbler, Southern Grey Shrike and Laughing Dove completed the rest of the day’s bird assemblage. At Chiruyeh I discovered a large pool of water in the village, which held my first Red-wattled Lapwings joined by one Spur-winged Lapwing! It was great seeing the red-wattled’s, but it was even more exciting to see the spur-winged; I hadn’t seen one since Turkey, if I remember correctly. Hanging about the pool gave me views of another first, White-breasted Waterhen! Two birds were clambering through a small thorn tree over the water and then ran off out of sight across the water. 

Parked beside a small reservoir.

At a small roadside shop on the outskirts of Bandar Aftab, I was fortunate to meet Saleh. Here I am afraid I have to expand on the story, because the events that followed were so remarkable that I still can’t believe how privileged I was to meet someone like him; Iranians truly do have very warm hearts! Saleh and I exchanged numbers and he promised to call a little later, with the idea that we could meet up for some beach camping near his home town of Bandar Charak. It was still a 20 km cycle, and the day was already edging towards an end. I pushed hard and fortunately there were enough flat stretches to cover distance quickly, all the while I was wondering if I would hear from Saleh again. True to his word, he called me up with directions on where to meet him and his wife near the beach. We met up after sunset, pitched ours tents above the high-water mark and made a fire with drift wood and other bits. Saleh’s wife, Mithra, prepared a marvellous dinner with ingredients half-prepared at home, and we sat chatting late into the night under a very starry sky. The evening could have lasted forever for me, but tiredness drove me back to my tent, well after midnight. Next morning breakfast was prepared and relished, before packing up and heading back to Salah and Mithra’s home in Bandar Charak. They invited me to stay over for the day and night and I naturally agreed; they were such fantastic people it would have been a sin to decline! 

Camping on the beach Iranian-style with Saleh and Mithra.

An overview of our beach campsite at night. Photo by Saleh.

Next day they helped me book my ferry ticket at the local travel agency and after a very pleasant stay I was back on the road. I managed 60 km during the day towards Bandar Lengeh. Saleh called me to hear my progress, and then suggested that since it was Yalda night, they will come out and meet me whether I find a camp spot. Yalda is the longest night of the year, and Iranians celebrate it by feasting on fruits, especially watermelons. So Saleh, Mithra and a friend drove out all the way to camp with me yet again! It was a great evening and the next morning I wondered if this was now then the last goodbye. It was not.

On a salt pan on the way to Bandar Lengeh.

A fisherman's boat on the beach near Divan.

Yalda night near the beach with Mithra, Saleh and friend. Photo by Saleh.

After farewells I was heading into the strongest wind I can remember ever facing. The 30 km’s remaining to Bandar Lengeh took me the best part of the day to complete. The only respite along the way was meeting Hamid, a teacher on his way to work. He had assisted a French cycling couple only a few months early, and who were also invited by Saleh and Mithra to stay over at theirs! After a lengthy chat beside the road, taking cover from the wind and dust in his car, we agreed to make contact again before I boarded the ferry. 

Almost there! The wind was relentless.

Since the wind did not abate by late afternoon, the ferry was cancelled and I was stuck in Bandar Lengeh. Or so I thought. Hamid called me up and took me out to taste the local speciality, fish roll (like a hotdog but with fish), which was surprisingly good. Due to family commitments in Bandar Abbas, and with a two hour night drive still ahead of him, Hamid had to leave but not before making sure I was sorted for the night. Saleh had already suggested that I stay over at theirs if the ferry was cancelled, so after securing my bike in safe storage, Hamid organised me a taxi ride back to Bandar Charak at his expense (!!). And so I spent a further two nights at Saleh and Mithra’s. Being complete outdoor enthusiasts, they took me for a short hike to the top of some nearby hills one early morning, where breakfast was brought forth from the backpacks and enjoyed with a view over Bandar Charak and the Persian Gulf. 

Dinner spread at Saleh and Mithra's. Eat your heart out!

Saleh took me swimming at the local beach, which was something I was looking forward to doing before leaving the country. Though we could not see them while in the water, Green Turtles where foraging in the surf not far from us. Mithra cooked a variety of delicious dishes, making every meal time a special occasion. A little birding at a pool of water in town delivered a White-throated Kingfisher and my first Citrine Wagtail. After a relaxing two days spent in great company, I was heading back to Bandar Lengeh, this time compliments of Saleh. I couldn’t even remember the last time I paid for anything! Their generosity was overwhelming. I am already looking forward to meeting with them again, and hope that I can return the favours.   
A Citrine Wagtail spotted in Bandar Charak; note yellow supercilium and grey back.

Back in Bandar Lengeh, and with another cancelled ferry ride (the ferry is small so is subject to more frequent cancellations when sea conditions are not optimal), I resorted to taking a taxi to Bandar Abbas as I was short on time. Hamid kindly saw me off at the taxi rank, and I promised him he would be the first person I will meet when I return to the port city. Upon arrival in Bandar Abbas, I discovered that Ivo and Brigitte, whom I had met some months earlier in Turkey, were booked on the same ferry to Dubai! It was great meeting up with them again and a great ending to a fantastic journey through what must be one of the world’s most underrated countries. I can go on for ages singing praises about Iran, but will end by saying this: if you enjoy wide open spaces, rich culture, exceptionally friendly and hospitable people, you will be very hard pressed to find a country that beats Iran. Visit this country at least once in your life time; you will be very, very pleasantly surprised…

Taxi driver (right) and co-driver who got me to Bandar Abbas on time.

The ferry ride from Iran to Dubai across the Persian Gulf.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Iran goes to number one

I arrived in Esfahan in the pouring rain, and headed straight for the nearest internet café to search for a place to stay. Before I managed to enter the internet cafe, a shopkeeper at the neighbouring cosmetics shop invited me in to dry off at the heater behind the counter. And so I ended up meeting quite a few people who gathered around the shop. When I eventually made it to the internet cafe, I met Jalil, who asked me where I was staying for the night. Since I had not yet secured a place, he invited me over to his home. I was still pretty damp, and knowing just how great it is to be invited into an Iranian’s home, was very happy to accept. Jalil and his wife treated me to my first take-out meal in Iran, which turned out to be superb despite some of the reviews I had got from other travelers; you have to know where to buy the best. Having learnt that I was interested in birds, Jalil invited me for an afternoon walk together with his nephew to the ‘Birds Garden’ during my stay in the city. The Birds Garden is a massive aviary on the banks of the Zayandeh Rood River which runs through the city, and features a variety of local and foreign species. The aviary had a number of African species too, which I was delighted to see considering I had not been home for quite some time! Jalil also made sure that I did not miss out on the famous saffron ice cream, and Iranian specialty with a truly decadent flavour. Highly recommended! And so it was that I had made another friend, one I can look forward to seeing on my next visit to the country.

Jalil and his nephew outside Birds Garden, Esfahan.

Inside the Birds Garden, Esfahan.

Meeting with shopkeepers and strangers in Esfahan.
A lad keenly interested in my travels and bike.

The shopkeeper of the cosmetics shop was a lively fellow!

Another proud bike owner.

My first four weeks in Iran were running out and one of the reasons I was in Esfahan was to get my visa extended for another month. While I was in Tehran, Mori had kindly organised with a friend in Esfahan to help me with this. Mori’s friend, Mohamad, came to fetch me with his motorcycle, and I followed him to a restaurant for some cake and coffee, just as a welcoming gesture! Mohamad was not articulated in English, and to this day it is a mystery to me how we managed to communicate for the three days he hosted me! Somehow we just got by. He would say something in Farsi (Persian) and I would take my best guess at what he said, and then reply with something in English! Besides helping me get my visa extension, Mohamad pulled all the plugs when it came to hosting. He took me to a number of tourist sites in the city, the Chehel Sotoun Garden, the Armenian Orthodox Church and museum, and the massive Emam Square. To make transportation around the city easy, I joined him on the bike. Being a passenger on a bike was new experience for me, hanging on the back while Mohamad expertly maneuvered through the seemingly chaotic traffic. In the beginning when things got to close for my likely, I would just shut my eyes and hope for the best! But I soon discovered that Mohamad knew what he was doing, and so was able to relax and enjoy cruising the city with such ease. 

Mohamad with the bike that took us through the city.

Artwork inside the Armenian Orthodox Church.

The Emam Square in Esfahan.

Mohamad also made sure I was not short on food, and spoilt me with numerous Iranian dishes of which I can’t even remember the names anymore, and always made sure the fridge was stocked with my breakfast favourites, cream cheese, carrot jam (amazing stuff but a bit of a sugar rush), and Iranian flat bread. Mohamad’s assistance during my stay was a big blessing and I am much indebted to him. On my way out he dropped me off at a bike shop where I had my rear wheel trued to remove the buckle in the rim. The helpful and highly efficient staff did not charge for the speedy service! I also left the shop with a large bag of dates, compliments of a local cyclist who happened to the visit the shop while I was there. Things couldn’t get better I figured! And it didn’t stop there either… 

Outside the bike shop; the gentleman with the cap bought me dates.
Before leaving Esfahan, I once again took a ride along the bank of the Zayandeh Rood to admire the stone bridges, such as the famous Siosepol and Khaju. The architecture is really something worth admiring, while the bridges are also beautifully lit at night. Though the river was dry at this time of year, I could just imagine what a sight it must be when flowing; a real draw card for locals wanting to relax on the banks, amidst the bustle of the city. The well-maintained wooded parks that stretch along either side of the river were also something to appreciate; undoubtedly some of the most picturesque parks I have ever seen. I could spend hours just lazing about here.

The Siosepol Bridge in Esfahan city.

Swan boats waiting for the water in the Zayandeh Rood.

The Khaju Bridge.

The banks of the Zayandeh Rood in Esfahan. 

My next milestone was Shiraz city, 500 km to the south. Most of the way was flat making for easy riding through vast desert landscapes. I saw my first Desert Lark beside the road; a rather obliging bird which allowed me to get real close. I also saw a pair of what I thought was Hume's Wheatear, but could not be sure as the species looks confusingly similar to Variable Wheatear, at least in the book. After covering the first big chunk of the way, I took a detour off the main highway at Eqlid to explore some of the secondary roads. Taking the back roads always leads to the discovery of great places and sights, like the marsh at Aspass and the breath-taking pass near Reza Abad. I did not get to explore the best of the marsh, which looked like it had good potential for interesting birds, but instead had a look around the dryer edges. Birds were scare during the midday sun, so I decided to push on and save it for another time. I spent the night with four gentlemen in a house at the top of the pass; they insisted it would be warmer and more comfortable than camping!

Camping in the desert, and a bit close to a highway too!

Desert landscape along the highway south of Esfahan.

More desert landscape. Love it!

Guess which tent I slept in?
Pomegranates for sale by the roadside.

A Desert Lark; though drab-looking, it is still a beautiful bird!

More desert landscape.

You are now entering the metropolis of Aspass.
The dry part of the marsh at Aspass.

The road south of Aspass.

The mountain pass above Reza Abad, at sunset.

The four gentlemen who invited me in, at the top of the pass.
On the early morning descent down the pass I saw my first Radde’s Accentor. At first I was surprised to find such a high altitude species there, but then realised I was at 2500 m! Much of western Iran is already at a good altitude, so any reasonable mountain pass will take one over 2000 m. While taking in the view from the top of the pass, and the new lifer, I also enjoyed the general birdlife, including Eastern Rock Nuthatch, Scrub Warbler, Rock Bunting, Yellowhammer, White-eared Bulbul and the Middle East race of Black Redstart. The male birds of the later species have appreciably more rufous underparts than their western relatives. I enjoyed the birding and scenery so much I took the descent at ease, which was rather begging to be raced instead. 

Radde's Accentor, surprise bird for the day.

An immature Eastern Rock Nuthatch, with less black on the face.
The road down the pass, magnificent!

The valley below the pass was picturesque.

Back in the flat straights I sighted my first Pied Kingfisher for the Asian continent near a small road side pool, as well as my first Graceful Prinia since Turkey. At the small village of Bidgol I was yet again invited by a shop owner to stay the night, so enjoyed more Iranian hospitality and good food. I hadn’t gone a descent stretch the next morning when I was invited for an early lunch at another home – by now I was bulging with the copious intakes of fine rice and meat dishes. 

Shopkeeper (left) with friends in Bidgol.

A motorcyclist using my bike pump to fix a slow puncture.
On my early evening approach to the city of Marvdasht, I was pulled over by a friendly driver. Yet another invite and so I followed Ostovar to his home, where his wife had prepared fish for dinner, a rarity for me and thus a real treat. By now I was really becoming comfortable spreading out on Persian carpets for a chat and dinner; I was not missing the standard table and chairs which can be rather superfluous most of the time! Though I must admit sitting cross-legged is still a challenge for me. The next day I visited Persepolis, an ancient city founded by King Darius I in 518 BC. It was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire and it took a whole century before this magnificent city reached completion. Being a par excellence symbol of the Achaemenid dynasty, it was burned down by Alexander of Macedonia in 330. History has it that the Greeks removed the treasures from the city on 20 000 mules and 5 000 camels! 

An uncompleted gate to one of the palaces at Persepolis.
The front wall of the ancient city of Persepolis.

The Gate of All Nations, leading into Persepolis.

Old graffiti on the walls of Persepolis.

The detail of the relief carvings at Persepolis is impressive.

The tall pillars of the Apadana Palace at Persepolis.

Relief carvings above the king tombs at Persepolis.

Pale Crag Martins (Rock Martins) swirled about the top of the tallest remaining pillars, which reached a height of 20 m and once supported the massive roof of the Apadana Palace. The tombs of the kings, just above Persepolis and carved into hillside rock were equally impressive, especially the detailed relief carvings. I spent the entire day here, and could easily have spent another. As the sun set, the ruins were bathed in an intense orange light which gave Persepolis an almost magical feel; if time could stand still, then this would be the best time! Ostovar texted me during the day with an invitation to speak to a group of students attending his evening English class, and of course spend another night at his home. Though the class was small, it was a great vibe as the students got the chance to ask me questions about my travels in order to practice their English. Questions ranged from ‘why are you traveling by bicycle?’, to ‘why did you decide to travel through Iran?’.

With students at an English evening class in Marvdasht.

From Marvdasht it was only a day’s cycle to the famous city of Shiraz. I saw my first Desert Finch along the way, as well as surprises such as Northern Lapwing and Black Kite. The plan was to meet up with Amir and his family in Shiraz, but he could no longer make it due to other commitments in Tehran. Though I had been really looking forward to meeting up with them, I was unknowingly still in for an exciting and memorable stay. Amir had arranged with a friend to receive me upon arrival, so I cycled into the city with full faith that things will work out just fine. Making the usual stop at the first internet café to orientate myself, I discovered I had already received a text from Abbas, whom I was to contact upon arrival. I felt like I was being treated like royalty already! Abbas in turn sent a colleague to meet me, who would escort me to the hotel where I had been booked in! Somehow Iranians just know how to make you feel welcomed and at home. Maryam’s first line of introduction was ‘welcome to Iran and Shiraz city!’ With such a warm welcome I knew I was in good hands. After squeezing my bike into the trunk of a taxi, we arrived at the hotel where Maryam negotiated a very affordable room rate with the management, and then invited me for a cup of tea on the hotel’s roof top cafeteria. Our conversation took a few turns but revolved mainly about travel. For me the penny dropped when the subject of ‘life purpose’ came up. It was like being hit by a refreshing big wave, and I was reminded by the saying I had heard somewhere before ‘do what you want to do, not what you need to do…’. That was the single most inspirational chat I had in a long time, and recharged my desire to find out what I am going to do with the rest of my life. What will I do after this bike trip or is it not going to end, and where will it lead me? I realised that cycling alone was not going to be enough; I would have to actively pursue this thing called life purpose, which so often seems to elude us. By the time Maryam left I was buzzing with new energy, and I was extremely grateful for the opportunity to have met her. Like I have heard from Amir, sometimes all it takes is one word to make all the difference; I now know exactly what he meant!

A Desert Finch; in flight they show pink flashes in the wings and tail.

Not sure what this shop was, but couldn't resist a photo.

A little shopping for gear and sight-seeing around Shiraz kept me busy most of the next day. Late afternoon I met up Abbas, Maryam and a colleague, who took time from their busy schedules to show me some of the more beautiful gardens Shiraz has to offer, such as the Eram and Jahan-nama garden. The history behind these gardens is as fascinating as is the layout themselves; the Jahan-nama garden for instance has been in existence since the 13th century, with the recent layout dating to the 18th century. We spent a good proportion of the rest of the evening having a lively conservation in the garden’s cafeteria. Sharing in such excellent company was a privilege, and was another highlight of my stay. After farewells and some more tips on places to visit in the city, I headed off to the Tomb of Hafez. Hafez was one of Persia’s most influential poets who lived in the 14th century. He is still very much revered by Iranians, who visit his tomb to pay tribute to the legend who’s poems are still an integral part of their culture. The tomb and surrounding garden were beautifully lit, and I spent quite some time there, admiring both the tranquility of the scene before me and the steady stream of visiting devotees. 

The Qavam House at the Eram garden in Shiraz.
The Jahan-nama Garden by night.

A good night out with friends in Shiraz.

The tomb of Hafez in Shiraz.

The next day, while having a long overdue Skype chat with a very good friend from South Africa, I heard of the passing of Nelson Mandela. While this came as a shock, I took solace in the thought that he could now finally ‘move on’ after a magnificent life. That night I received a sincere text message from Abbas, to let me know of Mandela’s passing. This was the most thoughtful message I had received in ages, and then from someone I had only met once… This gave me a moment to reflect on Mandela’s life again, and in that moment I was filled with indescribable emotion. Not because of his passing, but because I realised in that moment that he had performed his earthly task with absolute precision. The inner peace he had gained while spending 27 years of his life in prison, brought peace to a country that was perhaps at the very edge of civil unrest, if not war. I realised my own walk to inner freedom was still in the making; Mandela had accomplished his.

With two days remaining in Shiraz, I made visits to some of the other attractions in the city. The Shah-e Cheragh shrine was simply awe-inspiring, with its millions of mirrors covering the walls and intricately designed ceiling. You have to see it to believe it! I also strolled through the massive Vakil Bazaar and got somewhat lost at one point, but that’s the fun about exploring new places! I also took a peek at the Arg-e Karim Khan, or better known as the Shiraz Citadel built in the 18th century. It served as the living quarters of the king during the Zand dynasty, later as the governor’s seat and then eventually as a prison. I deliberately skipped a few sites, so that I would have something new to see upon my return to Shiraz. 

Inside the Vakil Bazaar, Shiraz city.
A corridor in the Vakil Bazaar, Shiraz.

The outside walls of the citadel in Shiraz.

Window art in the Shiraz citadel.

So after another couple of memorable and inspirational weeks in central Iran, I was heading off for the Persian Gulf. Thus far Iran had had the greatest impact on me of all the countries I have traveled, mainly thanks to the country’s wonderful people. I therefore have no hesitation in rating it as my favourite country traveled to date!