All posts for the month July, 2015

Esfahan Royal Tour 

Breakfast at our hotel, Safavi Hotel, was quite uninspiring after the breakfasts we enjoyed at the Tehran Grand Hotel. We spent a bit of time catching up on emails and our website etc and met our Guide from Uppersia in the lobby at 12.00pm.

It was a late start but as Friday is prayer day we would be unable to get into the Mosques in the morning. Vince and I were a bit concerned it might be too hot…but we really wanted to see some sights before we leave tomorrow – it all turned out okay as although it was hot we were mostly inside cool buildings.

Somayeh, our Guide was very knowledgeable about the places we visited and willingly shared some of her own life and insights into Iranian culture. She is hoping to immigrate either to Australia or Germany and run tours to Iran from there.

The Esfahan Royal Tour is a walking tour taking in Imam Square, 3 palaces and 2 mosques….so it is pretty full on. First we went to Chehelsotun Museum, which used to be a palace. This was not used as a residence, but as a palace for ceremonies and functions during the Safavid reign. The name related to the luck of number 40….and the 18 pillars, plus two at the back make 20 on the terrace. These were originally covered in mirrors and the reflection on the pool in front made the number 40. The entrance was covered in mirrors and was very impressive. There were many paintings on the walls and these related to the Shahs of the 1500 and 1600’s. There was also a display of the Qoran in kufic script with the seal of Imam Hassan (9th Century) behind glass….this is very precious in Iran.

Then we walked a little way to the Hasht Behesht Palace. It was build as part of the Safavid governing complex in the centre of the Nightingale Garden, hence the proliferation of nightingales throughout the artwork in the building. It has two floors, with about 20 symmetrical rooms with hexagonal elements. This was build by the Shah for his Herem and family. It was mostly a summer or spring residence but there were fireplaces to the women and children could come at other times also. The pool out the front was for them to swim in. The second floor was under restoration so we were not able to go up there, but we could see some of it from the ground floor. The rooms were beautifully decorated and Vince and I found the place very tranquil and cool….we even had a little kiss there as it felt so romantic…..we are not allowed to touch each other in public at all….so that was a bit naughty!

Next we walked towards Imam Square. Along with way we passed may Iranian families picnicking and having BBQ’s in the Park. Prayers were still happening at 2.20pm when we arrived so we decided to go for lunch. Somayeh took us to “Partikan” where we tried some authentic Iranian dishes….delicious! During lunch had us write in her note book she keeps on the people she meets….Vince wrote a bit about what to see when she gets to Australia, and suggestions of music and films to watch. I wrote some words of wisdom from our earlier discussions…..she cried when she read it…..but quickly regained her composure….she said I remind her of her mother. I told her she is only two years younger than my own daughter.

In Imam Square we visited the Ali Paqu Palace which has 6 levels and 94 steps to climb. In the entrance the courtyard has 4 corners where guards would face the wall when the Herem would pass. The people on the diagonal could talk to each other and no one else could hear…..we tried this out and it was amazing! This palace was used for politics and administration. The King would listen to peoples requests and make arrangements with other rulers….there was a reception room where foreign dignitaries met to discuss things and above it were some windows where the Kings wives from the Herem could look down and give a nod or not in approval. The most impressive room was the Music Room with fabulous acoustics due to holes in the ceiling….amazing the technology they had with limited materials all those years ago. One of the guards knew our guide and invited us into a “forbidden” room where Vince stole another little kiss!. Somayeh told us she has never been in there before. I took a photo of a fresco on the wall – that not many people would ever have seen….Vince says the lady is wearing a GoPro….I don’t think so! LOL

We then walked across the square to the Royal Mosque (also called Shah Mosque, Imam Mosque or Abbasi Mosque), where we were able to go inside. We could see the peacock in the centre of the dome and Somayeh explained about the way the light hits it to show its tail and about the script that is timed to be illuminated at sunrise and sunset. She also explained about the shrine and how humble the architect was. We then walked to a little “tea shop” where there were many young men partaking of the Shisha (Hooka) – smoking. We had some tea and some Iranian candy and sugar. We walked through the Bazaar and she showed us some camel bone boxes adorned with handprinted pictures. These have two little compartments with places for wedding rings…..we had earlier shared some stories as we had mentioned to some girls who stopped to talk to us that it was our honeymoon. She was quite intrigued by our blended family situation, and shared some of her own stories….pressure to marry as she is the eldest and her brother and sister can’t marry until she does. She is more interested in writing a book on Iranian people and culture with a German friend of hers.

We then walked to Shikh Lotfollah Mosque but didn’t go inside. By this time it was around 6.30pm so we said our farewells and headed back to our hotel.

Today’s Thursday 30th July, and the objective was to crunch the 460km from Tehran to Esfahan, as part of our whirlwind tour of Esfahan – Shiraz – Yazd, whilst we wait for the Indian Embassy to consider our visa applications. I need to remind myself what day of the week it is and where I should be, as my brain was so frazzled after the Indian visa mess that I kept on screwing up hotel bookings I was making in Shiraz and Yazd (via email, as few places use websites & online forms), and then I’d send an email to correct the erroneous dates, only to send a new batch of wrong dates. Duh !!!!

Anyway, this morning we slept in til about 8:00am – we had planned an early start but we were both still weary from the visa stuff so it was up at 8, breakfast downstairs, before loading the bike in the underground car park and then scooting up the ramp into the sunshine and stopping out the front of the hotel to (a) collect Karen, (b) set off the SPOT, (c) get the GoPro running and (d) say goodbye to Sam the hotel manager as he arrived for work.

I’d used Google Maps last night to plot our route out of Tehran and down to Qom, and I’d drawn a mudmap for me and had written out navigation notes for Karen, but they all went to shit basically when the road didn’t go the way Google Maps said it would, so we played a quick game of ‘find the freeway’ before we could be assured we were heading in the right direction.

The morning traffic wasn’t too dense I think, even for Tehran, and the only people who nearly crashed into us where the ones who wanted to take our photo as they drove along, or they wanted to get our attention as they waved at us. I kid you not – the number of people who almost shave our panniers and then wave nicely at us is unbelievable 🙂

As soon as we left Tehran behind we were into the desert, albeit on a six lane highway. There were quite a few toll booths along the highway, but as bikes aren’t allowed on the highways they have no fee set to charge us by, and a wave from us and yelling out that we’re Australian is enough to have us let through.

As we approached Qom we saw what passed by an industrial complex set in the desert – Google Maps suggested yesterday that there’s an enrichment facility in Qom but GM doesn’t always get things right.

Karen spotted signs for a tourist park just out of Qom and we pulled off the highway and entered the slip road, but the servo was empty and the park desolate, so we rejoined the highway. At this stage I was keen to get fuel as we only had about 80km range left in the tank, and I was hopeful that a servo would be attached to the toll booth at Qom but I was out of luck, with a sign indicating that the next servo was 30km down the road.

At this stage I throttled back a bit as the freeway has a 120kmh limit – enforced by quite a few police radar checks – but at that speed the fuel consumption is quite high, so we cruised along at a leisurely 100kmh whilst Karen complimented me on being so precise with planning our refuelling stops.

When the Maral Setareh Rest Area (including servo) appeared 30km later I was quite pleased with myself, as we didn’t have enough fuel to make it to Kashan. An almost full tank of fuel plus refilling our 1l bottle cost less than AU$15 – I love riding in Iran!

We did a loop of the restaurant area looking for somewhere to park the bike away from attention, and I ended up riding up onto the forecourt and parking out the front. The bike attracts attention everywhere we go – often it’s just a photograph besides the bike that people want, but sometimes they try and climb onboard and that’s a definite ‘no’ – so we endeavour to park the bike where we can keep an eye on it. Beyond that, I can’t lock the tank bag and we have things in there that I don’t want to go missing, so security is always in our minds when we stop.

We ordered some food from the fast food section and were told to wait ten minutes, so I had a quick squirt in the WC and Karen had a mission in the ladies, as she needs to remove her jacket, slide out of her braces, drop her heavy & bulky riding pants and then make sure she’s lined up with the squat dunny, and then put everything back in place afterwards.

Lunch was a bit ordinary, but a chocolate ice cream cooled us down a bit before we got back on the bike and out into the 41c degree heat. We picked up the pace and cruised along at 120kmh on the highway, with just a few cars and trucks as company – though you could almost guarantee that all the vehicles around for miles would somehow jam up in a bottleneck that had cars and trucks and bikes swerving all over the road before the blockage cleared and we could ride on alone for a while before we found another bottleneck to join.

The road followed the contours of a low mountain range just on our right hand or southern side, and the earth and rolling hills were parched and devoid of any signs of life. In places it was easy to imagine that we were on the surface of the moon as all the water had been sucked out the soil, and the hot wind that whipped around us was drying us out as well, so we peeled off the highway looking for a cold drink and pulled into Natanz, a dusty sleepy village hidden in the crook of the mountain foothills.

We rode slowly along the dusty main road looking for a shop, but they all seemed closed and barred. Karen spotted an open shop with some shade outside, so we parked up on the footpath and alighted. First one guy came along the street to admire the bike – Ali – and he was soon joined by four or five others. We grabbed a few bottles of cold water – the water bottles on the panniers heat up too quickly – and drank those outside so we could watch the bike and shoo away Ali when he tried to climb on, and one of his friends who wanted to try on my gloves.

We rejoined the highway and blasted through the low mountains towards Esfahan, joining a steadily growing throng of traffic. Again I’d written out some notes for Karen, but I’d left them in the tankbag and so I had to rely on my memory – and I did a pretty good job, but near enough isn’t good enough when you’re looking for a specific hotel, and so we ended up Criss-crossing Esfahan for a fair while until we chatted to a local couple on a scooter when we stopped for a red light, and they led us to our hotel – the Safavi.

Prior to locating our hotel I’d tried to follow my memorised notes – but where the road should have been straight it went off on a tangent due to earthworks, and where it should have been two-way it was one-way and we were again forced to take a detour. At one stage I tried to take a short-cut from a back street back to the main road, and ended up riding along the footpath of a shopping area and over little bridges that divided the arcade. Karen found this particularly entertaining and extolled both my navigational prowess and ability to dodge shop mannequins on display on the footpath. Truth be told I’d been lured down the path by the sight of some small bikes parked up ahead, but s Karen pointed later they are teeny-weeny 125’s and as narrow as a push bike where as our BMW isn’t much narrower than a small car.

Once settled in our hotel and having cooled down after the long hot ride we walked back to the tree-lined street we’d ridden along before as we looked for the turn-off to our hotel, but couldn’t find anywhere to get some food, so after strolling through the brick-domed bazaar that featured nothing but ugly jewellery we walked back to our hotel. Karen asked at the desk if they served dinner at our hotel and was told “no”, but after a bit more questioning she got a “yes – dinner is served from 8:00pm onwards” so we did a bit of blogging before grabbing some dinner in the downstairs restaurant when it opened at 08:00pm.

After we finished at the Golestan Palace we took a short walk to the Tehran Bazaar. We were not interested in shopping….even though there were many beautiful things to look at, some of which would look good in our home back in Perth, we have neither the room in our panniers nor the money to waste sending things home …..previously we looked at some hand painted bowls in Turkey but it was going to cost twice the price for shipping/postage so we left it.

Our presence in the Bazaar spread like wildfire….they know when tourists are around. People kept coming up to our guide and hassling her to invite us to come to their carpet shops…..she eventually told them we had come from Esfahan and we had bought in Esfahan….so we were not interested any longer…..they accepted this and left us alone. Nerjes had explained to me previously that the police arrest and fine women for things like wearing too much make-up, painting their nails, wearing too tight a manteau or showing too much fringe in their Hijab….as we passed an underwear store she pointed out a garment label with a picture of a woman wearing a bra….she explained that if the police came past and saw that they would fine the shop owner as he should black out the woman’s face. We walked past the Shah Mosque whilst in the Bazaar, but you had to hire a Chador to go in…and I was already so hot in what I was wearing we decided to give it a miss. I don’t know how Iranian women don’t pass out from all the clothes they have to wear in this stifling heat?

After the Bazaar Nerjes asked if we wanted to eat in town, as it was around lunch time. She took us to “Moslem” a well known local restaurant, where we tried the traditional dish of “Tay Chan”, a kind of rice cake that you eat with lamb or chicken. We had the lamb and it was also served with a different kind of rice as well….that goes with “lamb muscle”….it was delicious. Whilst we ate, Nerjes shared some personal stories of how her family celebrates the New Year. There was a young dyed blonde woman at the table who not only had her hair falling around her face and shoulders, but also hanging down her back…..and a face full of make-up….I thought of the huge fine she would get if the police came by.

Next we walked …..quite some way….to Meidan Mashgh Square where we saw at the entrance to the National Museum. All the Museums are located around this square and if and when we return to Tehran we will try and visit some of them.

We booked a 4 hour tour (US$60 each) of Hidden Terhan with Uppersia Tours. Our guide, Nerjes, was already waiting for us in the hotel lobby just before 9.00am. We caught a taxi (150,000 IRR) downtown and commenced our walking tour starting with the UNESCO World Heritage listed, Golestan Palace.

The Golestan Palace (Palace of Flowers) is about 400 years old and was the official residence of the Royal Family when Tehran became the capital. It is in Panzdah Kordad Square and is the oldest historic monument in Tehran. It belongs to a group of buildings once enclosed within mud-thatched walls of the Arg (citadel) built during the reign of Talimash I of the Safavid dynasty (1502 – 1736). Golestan Palace complex has 17 structures in all including , public and private palaces, museums and halls. Most of it was built during the 200 years of the Qajarian Dynasty.

The main building is covered in beautiful tiles, marble (with Stucco work) and mirrors…..very impressive. We saw the artwork of the tiles in the building and she explained to Vince the symbolism. Moving past the Takht-e Marmar (Marble Throne), in the middle of a spectacularly decorated terrace (iwan), we could see it was surrounded by elaborate paintings, marble carvings, tile work, stucco, mirrors, enamel, woodcarvings and lattice windows. It was build in 1806 by order of Fath Ali Shah Qatar (1797-1834) and they used 65 pieces of special yellow marble from Yazd. It was used for coronations of Qatar Kings and formal court ceremonies. The last King to have his coronation there was Reza Khan Pahlavi (r. 1925-1941) in 1925. (Note the coronation of Mahammad Reza Pahlavi (r. 1941-deposed 1979) was in the Museum Hall not the Marble Throne.)

In the Khalvat-e Karim Khani (cosy corner of previous residence terrace) there is a small pond with a fountain in the middle of the trace and water from a subterranean stream flowed from the fountain into the pond via gravity. We also saw the magnificently carved, one piece marble tomb bearing the effigy of Naser al-Din Shah. He was assassinated by Mirza Reza Kermani, when he was visiting and praying in the shrine of Shah-Abdol-Azim. An old rusty revolver was used and it is through he might have survived if his clothing was thicker or the shot was at a longer range. Naser al-Din was originally buried in the Shah-Abdol-Shrine (where he died), in Rayy, near Tehran but is now at the Golestan Palace.

Next we visited the Talar-E Aineh (Hall of Mirrors)…unfortunately we were not allowed to take photographs here….I guess if you did you would be “fed” to the lions out the front guarding the impressive doors. It is famous for its exquisite, and extraordinary mirror work… was unbelievable the intricacy of the jigsaw of mirror work that filled the rooms, scubas the Talar-e Berlin, famous for its mirror work and chandeliers. We also had to put coverings over our shows to go in. Upstairs in Talar-e Salam (Reception Hall) which has mosaic floors, we saw replicas of the famous Takht-e Khurshīd (Sun/Peacock) throne which is like a platform and a smaller throne I can’t remember the name of (Nadir Throne) more like a chair. At the bottom was an animal that I thought was a leopard or cheata …Narjes said it is supposed to be a tiger to show power….but she thought it was really a cheata…..because Iran has Cheata, Zebra and Bears…..I was astounded by this. Another Hall, the Talar-e Adj (Hall of Ivory) I think, was a dining room and hosted models of 4 of the Kings. In a separated room was a model of with a model of Naser al-Din Shah with a model of a famous painter painting him. We saw many gifts from other countries to the Kings in the Talar-e Salam, including an impressive China collection in the Talar-e Zoroof. Vince was more interested in the meteorite that was in a glass case.

We walked along and went into the Sahm-ol-Ebareh (Edifice of the Sun) and in its time was an amazingly tall structure (5 floors) built in the time of Nasser-ol-Din Shah.It was built in 1865 and took 2 years to complete. Inside it was previously a private palace and it had lovely fireplaces.

Nerjes told us about the Emarat-e Badger (Buidling of the Wind Towers) which was constructed in the time of Fath Ali Shah (1806) but was renovated during the reign of Nasser-ol-Din shah. The building is flanked by two rooms known as goshvar (earrings). There is a central room with boasts the finest stained glass window in the Golestan Palace. Nerjes explained that the stained glass windows are special because the colours hurt the eyes of flies, so the windows can be open and no flies come in. Also, it has healing properties for babies due to the light they produce.
There are four wind towers of blue, yellow and black glazed tiles and a golden cupola. They draw the cooling wind down through the towers, through water chambers below and then cool the building through lower ducts. Nerjes explained that people in the desert areas such as Bam, Kerman and Yazd.

We passed the Chador-Khaneh (House of Tents) between the Badger and Almas Hall. It was used as a Royal warehouse for their tents….the Qatar Dynasty loved camping. These were grand trips with many servants so many tents were required.

We spent about an hour and a half there and it really was quite fascinating. In addition to information about the palace, Nerjes shared with us some information about arranged marriages in Iran and how things have adapted to accommodation tradition as well as individuals wishes today. She shared the story of her own recent courtship and marriage (its her 1st anniversary on Thursday)….we felt very privileged. Throughout the day she also shared her views on women, tourists and trends I had observed. She confirmed that the “french” influence comes from one of the Shah’s and his wife, who had studied in France….to the extent that some French words, such as “Merci” are commonly used in Iran. It was very interesting.

Afterwards we went to see some other sites….I will blog these separately.

We have been in Tehran for four days and apart from the local street (for food and to buy a change of Manteau at Paris House….as I have to wear it each day and needed to wash my white one)…we have seen nothing of the city. There is a strange French influence here in their advertising, make-up and perfumes in stores and pictures of icons – such as the Louvre. I have read that the Ayatollah Ruhollah Moosavi Khomeini (founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran) spent time in exile near Paris….so I am not sure if that has any bearing on the French influence here.

The majority of our time has been at the Indian Embassy each day trying to convince a range of ever increasing officialdom that they should issue us visas that will allow us to travel to India via road. The official story is they only issue visas by air! I mean the ANIMAL is talented but even she can’t fly!

When we are not at the Embassy pleading our case to have the visa issued here, as we don’t want to risk entering Pakistan without onward visas in place, we are holed up in our hotel room, at the Terhan Grand Hotel, completing paperwork and wading through red tape and alternative options.

It really is the climax of what has become an ongoing saga….the information we received prior to departing Australia was that we could not organise the visa before leaving due to our travel timeframes and expiry… Indian Visas start from the day of issue and are only valid for 6 months – so ours would have expired before we got to India. We were told that we could apply whilst on the road at any Embassy. Most Australians get an eTourist Visa (Visa on Arrival) online and it’s a simple and straight forward process….but this was not possible for us as we were not flying into an airport.

Some Indian Embassy’s now outsource their visa applications which is why we approached the Indian Visa Application Centre in Geneva Switzerland – who checked by telephone with the Embassy whilst we were there but we were told, despite our raising the concern over the airport issue, that we needed to apply for an eTourist Visa (Visa on Arrival) online. We still thought that this did not really make sense, so we waited and then went to the Indian Embassy when we got to Ankara, Turkey. However, we were again told….after the person checked by telephone, that we needed to apply for an eTourist Visa (Visa on Arrival) online….and again were given the web details we already had.
We then tried to fill in the online forms but there was a question about which airport of arrival (a drop down menu for 9 approved airports) so we were immediately jammed up, as we will not be going via air but overland via the Wagah-Attari border, crossing near Amritsar. We did explain this to both Geneva and Ankara. We contacted the online support for help and their response was that we were not eligible for an eTourist Visa (Visa on Arrival) and needed to apply at an Embassy… we originally thought!

At that point we contacted the A/Consulate General of India in Perth, to request advice and assistance. Perth contacted Ankara and they asked us to come back to gain our Visas there through the First Secretary, who would assist us. Unfortunately, we were already 700km away and needed to leave Turkey….as our insurance was running out and we had to enter Iran. We explained this and we were told to go to the Embassy in Tehran.

This time, armed with more information, we managed to work our way up the chain a little bit ….Vince calls me the “Jack Russell” ….and eventually got to speak to the First Secretary. But basically Terhan has their rules and won’t budge…even with help from Perth, it is a hard slog.

Today we “might” have moved forward….fingers crossed…..yesterday the First Secretary agreed to put our case forward to New Delhi and if they approve he will grant the visas. So today, we attended what can only be described as a rugby scrum, that was the Visa Processing Section of the Embassy (they do outsource here but we could not go there as we are not Iranian Nationals). We arrived around 10.00am and the doorman sent us to another door. Once inside it was jam packed and very hot. People were pushing and shoving, several all at once calling to the two officials behind screens… two separate windows and one door…..quite amazing to watch.

We had no idea what to do or where to go…..a young Iranian student, who spoke English offered us advice….we had to approach the first window and they would take our name….then go and wait for the second window to call us. Without any real line as such we just joined the throng and waited for an opportunity to speak at the window….total chaos…..I’ve never seen anything so disorganised in my life…..think Centrelink in a lower socio economic area, with no ticket system, and you just might get a sliver of the idea!

Kindly, the young student called Vince forward, before him, and encouraged him to push his way through…..they took our name! We moved towards the second window and waited. The process was very slow, and some Iranian women stated asking us what we were there for….when they saw that we were just dropping off documents, they encourage us to push our way to the front to speak at the second counter…..reluctantly, Vince did this and we were told she would call him next. Once called, we were quizzed at length and given an extra form to complete (that really just repeated information already on our application). The visa officer was very abrupt, barking instructions at us and cutting us off after she asked us questions and we were trying to explain. Eventually, I had had enough and started mirroring her tone back in my responses…..this seemed to work. She had to go away and check on something….we don’t know what….and she claimed our Iranian Visas had expired as well as our Rego ….this was incorrect and we managed to point it out in our documentation. We had to pay 2,800,000 IRR…which she miscounted and wanted more money….but I argued the point and eventually she realised her error and processed our applications. We were then subjected to biometric screening (photo and fingerprint scan)…and now we wait! They estimate 10 days or so until we will have and outcome from Delhi. We left a little before 12.00pm ….so around 2 hours.

We were lucky, people were kind to us, and we got to lodge our applications…..I overheard one woman explain to a French couple that the centre closes at lunch time and those who have not managed to be seen have to come back the next day and try again!

We really hope the response is positive as the rest of our trip kind of depends on it, and we really want to see beautiful India!

Sunday in Tehran

Sunday is the first day of the working week for the Indian Embassy in Tehran, so our goal for today was to attend the Embassy and lodge our visa applications. Three hours after first arriving at the Embassy we departed, still without being able to submit our applications but at least now we have an appointment to meet the First Secretary (Consular) tomorrow morning to discuss our request – so cross your fingers everyone as we need some good luck.

Sunday afternoon was a lazy affair – we had been up to 02:30am this morning working on an email to alert the First Secretary to our plight, and then awake again at 07:00am to get ready to visit the Embassy.

We wandered down Valiasr Street a bit, and stopped at TFC (Tehran Fried Chicken) for the closest thing to KFC I’ve ever tasted. A bit further down Karen found a shop selling clips for scarves, so she bought a few of these, and across the road saw a mantou she liked, but the shop was closing – it appears as if shops close at 2:00pm and re-open at 7:00pm, so we just had a quiet afternoon before re-emerging about 7:30pm to go for a stroll in the cooling evening. Karen treat herself to a new mantou, and we bought some nibble mix from a shop before grabbing a cheap and cheerful dinner at the downstairs canteen we’d discovered yesterday. We had earlier picked out a Chinese Restaurant and planned to go there for dinner, but without any success with our Indian visas as yet we weren’t ready to celebrate.

In our hotel – the Tehran Grand – the walls are adorned with framed black and white photos of ‘Old Tehran’, and Karen took some photos of these. If I’m reading and converting the Farsi date on the frames correctly then the photos date back to 1951 or 1952, and the old-fashioned cars and buses in the photos look about that vintage.

I found an email from a good friend this afternoon (Craig – head honcho for a riding group back in Perth and Honda Gold Wing aficionado) – the junk mail processor on the Mac is overzealous and places valid emails into the junk folder – and he suggested that now we’re in Iran the adventure will really start, and he’s hit the nail on the head. A few days ago enroute to Kandovan I needed to refuel the bike so pulled into a servo and that proved interesting as all the fuel pumps were labelled in a fluorescent Farsi script that was colourful and eye-catching but impossible to figure out if the pump was for petrol (benzine) or diesel.

Drivers here in Iran are more courteous and switched-on than in Turkey – largely keeping within their lanes and rarely speeding excessively. I have noticed a large police presence on the side of the roads – even stopping once to chat to some police after being flagged down – on the dry desert highways they park their cars under sunshades erected over sloping mounds custom built as vantage points from which to use their speed detectors. In the cities the driving is a unique combination of cut-and-thrust and politeness – everyone charges in but no one is overly pushy, so whilst the driving can appear uncomfortably close everyone just glides past one another – at times with barely a centimetre between cars.

Most of the motorcycles here are very old 125’s of an incriminate brand – perhaps Chinese copies of old Hondas, and many of them sport a large Perspex windscreen that sits vertical on the handlebars and features a removable window at eye-level, and as an extension option to the windscreen many bikes also feature a vinyl roof that clips into the windscreen top edge and covers the rider’s head. I was looking at a new bike this afternoon – the Boxer BM 125 – and it features drum brakes back and front – more suited to the ‘Old Tehran’ era perhaps. With that said – Iranian riders have no fear – they just launch themselves into the traffic without a second glance but rather an unwavering belief that the car and bus drivers will avoid them. You do need to watch out for them on the footpaths though – at times they’ll whiz along the footpath faster than the traffic on the adjacent road. I’m not sure you could get away with that in Perth 🙂

Zanjan to Tehran

Vince was still not feeling the best ….better than yesterday….but still not 100%. So we skipped trying to find any breakfast and just hit the road around 10.00am for the 315km ride to Tehran. Vince stopped for petrol and had a bit of bother getting the pump to work as they need “ration” cards….but it was all good and the fuel is very cheap here …1000 IRR (50cents Aust) a litre…..much better than the $2.50 we have paid in Turkey and elsewhere in Europe.

As we drove along many cars tooted, waved and rolled down windows to welcome us to Iran. The motorbikes here are all small, so the huge monster of a machine that is the ANIMAL sticks out like a sore thumb on the road and we attract a lot of attention.! One family who passed us in a blue car with a couple of kids in the back, held up a sign in English that said “LOVE”…..we gave it the big thumbs up as they pulled along side us. We had to pass through at least three or four toll booths and they all waved us on after asking where we were from and where we were headed….I thought they were being generous  until Vince pointed out that there are signs showing no motorbikes allowed on the expressway…..that’s because they can’t keep up with the speeds required. No one has questioned the ANIMAL being able to keep up….even the police who stopped us for speeding the other day just let us go with a caution to slow down….but nothing about not being allowed on the expressway! My husband is leading me a stray into being naughty I think! We saw lots of overloaded vehicles which is common place here …..Iran efficiency I guess… OHS? Why make six trips when you can just make one!

As we approached Qazvin we pulled over and there was the family in the blue car also pulled over….we stopped beside them and I called the kids over and gave them each a sticker….they were thrilled. I asked if I could take a photo and the family kindly obliged. They then asked us for a photo of Vince and I with the children and the ANIMAL of course….and we obliged for them. Smiles all round.

We had planned to stop at Qazvin for a break and maybe some lunch…..but by the time we arrived there around midday neither of us felt like eating much due to our tummies…so we just had a pack of chips and a water each. It’s so hot (36 degrees) here and our adventure riding gear is like wearing sauna suits at times so we have to try to keep our fluids up.

As usual, anywhere we stop everyone admires the ANIMAL and Vince is in his element socialising and sharing our stories and our plans to the eager audience. One gentleman, who had seen me give the children the stickers earlier, indicated by sign language that he would like one too …so I gave him one. Whilst we were there two Iranian women from Tehran, Manijeh who could speak some English and her Uncle’s Wife who couldn’t speak English at all, Soghra approached me. Sigher was very interested in the armour in my jacket and kept touching my spinal plate….so I tried to explain by acting out it was in case I fell off….the look on her face was very concerned….I let her feel the armour in my jacket and trousers…she was impressed. I realised afterwards….these women would never have seen a woman dressed like me or on a motorbike (They have only relatively recently been allowed to drive cars). She was very taken with me and spent a lot of time in my personal space….something Iranians don’t bother about! Manijeh spoke to us for quite a while wishing us well and welcoming us…she showed me a picture of her daughter who is married and lives in Canada. Soghra showed me pictures of her grandchild….I shared with them that Vince and I have 5 adult children (3 girls and 2 boys) and that the girls all have children…so we have grandchildren (4 girls and 1 boy)….Manijeh translated for her relative and they were very pleased about that.  They asked if they could take photos and we agreed….we also took some….smiles all round again! I gave them a sticker each and we explained about our website. As we said our goodbyes both women hugged me and kissed me three times on the cheeks….I felt very privileged……a very special interaction I shall treasure from Iran.

Back on the road a German guy pulled along side us in his Jeep Stationwagon and gave us the big thumbs up …. a fellow traveller!

(Vince says:)

Our Garmin/BMW GPS is almost completely blind in Iran – it shows just the major connecting roads between cities, and shows zero street level detail, so for example, Tehran is just a grey blob on the screen. Fortunately I had scrawled a largely illegible mudmap on the back of an envelope the evening before, and that was our sole guidance to the Tehran Grand Hotel. I couldn’t take my eyes off the road to look at the map which was inside the see-through tank-bag, so whilst we zipped along the freeways at 100kmh or so Karen had to remove her sunglasses, locate her reading glasses and put them on under her helmet, and then peer over my shoulder to try and decipher my cryptic notes and diagrams – and she managed this quite well!!!

Tehran is criss-crossed by a network of north-south and east-west expressways and occasionally we’d miss a turn-off as you don’t get much advance warning that they are coming up, but we managed to home into the hotel without too much bother. The traffic was reasonably light and without too many manic moments – I think I’m still a bit shell-shocked from the ride into Istanbul and I wasn’t looking forwards to Tehran, but the drivers here are fairly courteous, and even make a concerted effort to stay within their lanes – when the road has lane markings that is, as often there are no markings.

Once settled in our room we wandered outside for a late lunch and found a delicious pizza place – almost like Pizza Hut !!! (Karen’s note: Black Headscarf makes no difference……a couple of girls still laughed at us but I asked them what was so funny and ended up with an apology). On the walk there and back we saw two car showrooms, both featuring a selection of posh new cars, like the Porsche Cayenne, BMW coupe, Mercedes etc – and this struck us both as quite incongruent as up to now all the cars we’ve seen on the road have generally been old cars – a lot of old and insipid Peugeots and Renaults, some newer Peugeots (305’s I think), and heaps of what look like locally-produced cars. A sign of the international sanctions perhaps.

In the evening I banged out the third round of visa applications for India, but having completed these forms previously in France (enroute to Geneva) and in Ankara, I’m getting much quicker at filling in the forms. Afterwards we wandered outside looking for somewhere to eat, and stumbled across our second below-ground level restaurant where we enjoyed a nice meal, served canteen-style. I think I’ve seen steps leading downstairs before – perhaps in Zanjan – squeezed between street-front shops – maybe it’s standard in Iran for restauarants to be below-ground – further investigation is required!!!!


We had a late start to the day…..Vince slept in until midday….things have finally caught up with him from our long days riding….and he also discovered he has an upset tummy …..that will teach him for making fun of me having to use the squat toilet yesterday….now it was his turn. These words came back to bite me about an hour later when I started with the same tummy issues.

We did go out to get some lunch …but had to quickly return to our hotel for Vince and that’s when it hit me too. So we spent the rest of the day in our hotel room….in close proximity to our new best friend…the squat toilet!

Whilst we were out for our afternoon walk we met Habib and his friends who kindly gave us advice on where we should go in Iran and even listed some places on some basic maps taken from the front of one of their diaries. Habib was awesome – he spent half an hour at least explaining to Vince the route we should take whilst travelling within Iran, describing in detail some of the sights we could enjoy – like the Ali Said Cave. The maps he gave Vince are in Farsi, so he had Vince annotate the maps with information so we would know what we were looking at. Habib is a seasoned traveller, having been to Europe, Russia and the USA, and he was very keen to ensure that our travels in Iran are as enjoyable as possible. He touched briefly on some aspects of daily life within Iran, providing a small insight into life here.

A  little further along the road a cleric came up to Vince and introduced himself, welcoming us to Iran. The cleric explained that he had taught himself English and after a brief chat he said farewell and continued on his way.

Friday is the weekend in Iran so most shops were closed….this made getting dinner difficult in the evening and we ended up with a makeshift arrangement from the local market. Whilst we were out I spotted a couple of scarfs I liked and we couldn’t decide on which one to buy…but at only 100,000 IRR (A$5) each Vince said to get both….so I now have a black and a white scarf to interchange with. I am attempting to try to be less conspicuous as everyone stares at us…and some unkind people even laugh….so we shall see if a less colourful headscarf helps.

Whilst I have seen “squat toilets” before on this trip….in the majority of places we have been able to find a “western toilet” alternative. Occasionally, I have been left with no choice but to use one…the first time was in Albania and the next in Burdur (Turkey). It was not the easiest thing to do….but it was only No 1 and everything was okay in the end….I carry a secret stash of toilet paper (TP) in my riding pants and eventually figured out what to do with the tap and bucket, or hose and water tap!

Our hotel in Tabriz had both a squat toilet and a western toilet in it….this was the first time we have experienced one in a hotel and obviously there was no need to use it.

But our hotel in Zanjan ONLY had a squat toilet…..Vince and I had joked earlier about who would be the first to need to use it. My money was on Vince to be the first to christen it….but DUM DE DUM DUM (drum roll)… guessed it….I needed No2 yesterday.

I went in…..and without giving you the gorey details did the necessary as carefully and strategically as I could……but there was just one problem……it wouldn’t go away!!!!! I tried a few things but nothing was working… I had to call in the big guns……Vince had a bit of a challenge but eventually conquered the situation and was victorious! Meanwhile I was in hysterics watching him with a hose as he was saying “I think we should Google how to use a squat toilet”….a bit late!!!!! As the internet here doesn’t work that would have been no use in any case!

Suffice to say we have both mastered it now…..and just as well as both of us have had upset tummies today……I guess it was something we ate yesterday….the joys of adventure travel!

Thursday 23rd July – Tabriz to Zanjan via Kandovan

Lonely Planet recommends to visitors to Trabiz a visit to Kandovan, approx 60km south-east of Trabiz, and Ali – the retired English teacher we’d spoken to at the bazaar yesterday recommended it as well, so after leaving our Azerbayjan Hotel about 07:30am and stumbling across the road leading toward Kandovan whilst looking for the road to Zanjan, we agreed on a little detour. At one stage I’d got a bit lost inside a town enroute to Kandovan as it’s off the main road, so I pulled in to get some benzine and showed the attendant the Farsi that Ali had given me the day before and with that the attendant explained how I could get back on the right road. Iranians are so helpful!

Ali had described Kandovan as the Cappadocia of Iran, but when we arrived at the little village – and once we’d paid the bridge troll 50,000IRR to enter the village – we couldn’t quite see where to go. The village itself had a cobblestone street running parallel to a river, and on the other side we could see what looked like merchant’s stalls, perhaps enroute to a walk to see the sights, but neither of us were inclined to go exploring, and after an orange cordial drink and a few biscuits from the Tabriz bakery, we headed back north to Tabriz, enroute for Zanjan via the main road to Tehran.

Fortunately it was much easier for us to pick up the road to Tehran coming in from the south, and after dodging an ugly traffic snarl – road workers resurfacing the centre lanes of a four lane highway with no advance warning signs – we made our way steadily towards Zanjan.

We stopped once at a fuel stop for lunch, and met some lovely people – Reza and his friends from Esfahan, and Saaed and his wife, also from Esfahan. Both Reza and Saaed have invited us to join them in Esfahan when we pass through. Further down the road we stopped again at a roadside stall as Karen wanted to buy a sheet of rolled fruit, and Reza saw us and pulled over again for a quick chat, as did a gentleman in an old car that we’d overtaken a few times previously just to have him pass us – gesturing for us to stop for a drink as his wife waved to us. He couldn’t speak any English but we had a quick chat, and he drove off with a big smile on his face.

The landscape we passed through today was stunning in its beauty. The road passed through a mountain region, dry and parched except the for irrigated land in the valley that looked like it was being watered from bores as the river was dry. Further east we passed through a sedimentary area devoid of any plant life, but the colours in the earth brought the scenery to life.

We encountered a few toll booths but they all waved us through, sometimes asking first where we came from. About 85km west of Zanjan we turned off the six lane highway and picked up the “Old Road to Zanjan”, an old dual lane road that followed the contours of a river, and divided the market gardens from the dry slopes to the south. Just as I was applauding myself for not having been stopped once for speeding on the trip so far I caught the attention of two policemen standing next to their parked car, so whilst one policemen pointed out on my speedo what the limit on the road was (100kmh, a bit less than the 117kmh I was doing when flagged down), his offsider was having a photo opportunity with Karen. After a round of smiles and handshakes and greetings, they waved us off and we carried on down the road, just to be stopped at a police checkpoint by another young officer – this one just curious about where we had come from.

At this stage we were only about 15km out of Zanjan, so within a few minutes we were picking our way along the Main Street looking for a hotel – any hotel. A taxi driver had us follow him to the main square or roundabout, and we quickly spotted a hotel, so Karen jumped off the bike and entered to make the arrangements, whilst I wrestled the bike off the road and onto the footpath, out of the way of traffic. We checked in and parked the bike underground, and then after a shower had a stroll around town looking for food, which turned out to be surprisingly difficult, but the friendly and generous staff in the little hamburger joint we eventually located more than made up for the effort.

Back at our hotel it’s out with the iPad and Mac as we have four days of notes to catch up on – no rest for the wicked!!!!


About 8:00pm it dawned on us that Zanjan comes alive in the cool of the evening, as all the stalls that had been shut during our afternoon walk were opened up, and the footpaths were full of families out for a stroll. We went down to the street to join them, diving down some side alleys so Karen could check out a few manteau shops, and eventually found our way to the covered bazaar. I tried some small grape-like fruits offered in the fruit section – very bitter and tart but refreshing as well, and Karen snapped a few photos of sheep heads for sale. Back on the main road we slipped into a place advertising pizza, but it was essentially a bit like an Iranian Subway. Two young men came in for dinner and one of them – Amin – struck up a conversation with us.

Amin came from Kurdestan, and aged 18 he had just arrived in Zanjan the day before to start his compulsory 21-months military service. Prior to arriving at Zanjan he had aspired to study the sitar at a musical academy in Tehran, however despite teaching himself from books and videos due to the lack of music classes at his high school, he hadn’t been successful in the entrance examination. Amin was hopeful of being placed into the medical side of the military training, and planned once he finished his training to travel to Finland and study nursing as one of his aunts lives in Norway. Obtaining a passport was quite difficult he said, and completion of his military service would help towards getting a passport. We had a very pleasant conversation with Amin, and wished him the very best for the future.