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!


  1. Having talked with you in Longyearbyen just prior to your going on this trip, I have followed your travels (and birding) with great interest. Your message about the Iranian people needs to be broadcast to the larger world to try to counter the Western propaganda machine.

  2. Hi Rick. Nice to hear from you and many thanks for the comment. Its been nearly two years since Longyear! Iran is quite a remarkable country and I have heard from others about their very positive experiences. Best regards, eric