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Posts from the ‘Iran’ Category

Breakdown of the Trucks Engine

We started driving very early at 6am since my fellow traveler Andrew read in his guidebook there is an Iranian version of the Great Chinese Wall in the area at which he wanted to have a look at. In order to see the wall we needed to make a detour and therefore start driving a couple of hours earlier.

After driving for two hours we heard a strange noise and stopped the truck. Our crew Sam and Jason needed half an hour to inspect the truck and find out what the actual problem is. It turned out there is an issue with one of the cylinders of the engine. It was nothing what we could repair straight away while being on the road, also because we don’t carry the required spare parts with us.

While Sam continued to inspect the truck in more detail our local guide Mehdi was on his phone to sort out alternative transportation for us so we could continue our travel while the truck is getting repaired. He also organized another truck which will tow our truck to the next Mercedes workshop.

While waiting for a minibus to bring us out of here we had the leftovers of Chris’s birthday cake and sorted out our luggage for the next days. Some of my fellow travelers were very pessimistic and thought we will not see this truck again. They were planning to take their entire luggage including all their valuables. I was rather optimistic and therefore decided to take only my backpack with my clothes but leave my camping equipment (tent, sleeping bag, mattress and pillow) behind. I thought we will probably not be camping when we don’t have our truck with us which contains tents for all people and the complete cooking equipment. I also decided to leave the majority of my valuables in the safe of the truck and only take some money for the next 2-3 weeks and my credit cards in case of an emergency. I felt better that way than carrying a large amount of cash with me.

Jason also collected some US dollar cash to give it to Sam who will stay behind with the truck while Jason will continue with us. Getting an engine repaired can cost serveral tousands of dollars why it’s handy to have them in cash in a country like Iran where international cards aren’t excepted.

Actually whenever you plan to travel to Central Asia don’t plan to use your debit card, credit card or traveler’s checks. It’s very hard or often even impossible to withdraw money. So you better take all money you will need in US dollar cash. Euros are partially fine as well and I changed them from time to time to avoid changing twice (Euro to USD to local currency). However, I noticed the exchange rate for Euro is often less favorable than the one for Dollar, so better take more Dollars than Euros.

While waiting, some of us had a look around in the little village of Rudbar Gheshlagh where our truck broke down and got some bread for breakfast. We also took a last group picture with our guide Mehdi because we might not see him again before crossing the border into Turkmenistan the day after tomorrow. Therefore, we also collected money to give him a tip. I personally found it distressing to see some people not making any contribution to it. How mean can somebody be to not give any tip to a guide who has been with us more or less 24 hours a day for two weeks? I probably will never understand this…

At 11am another truck arrived which was supposed to tow our truck to the next Mercedes workshop. Sam immediately got busy to attach our truck to it and get ready for departure. The driver of the other truck wanted to help him, went underneath our truck and started to drain off the oil. This drove Sam crazy since he didn’t saw the need to drain off all the oil and he started a big discussion with him. In the end he could stop him and got a smile back on his face when I complimented him for his greasy manly look.

At 11:30am the minibus arrived which is supposed to bring us to today’s destination Shirvan close to the Turkmenistan border. We all hopped into the minibus and enjoyed the ride with some Iranian pop music played by the driver. After driving for a few kilometers a local women joined us who seemed to be related to the driver and was sitting next to him. Some of us had a basic conversation with her and for some reason she was very keen on getting the contact details of all of us.

At lunch time we stopped at a hotel with a restaurant attached to it. Unfortunately the waiter didn’t speak any English. After two attempts to place our orders he was calling his English teacher and my fellow traveler Andrew placed our orders over the phone to the English teacher who was translating it back to the waiter. This worked out well since we all received what we ordered without anything being lost in translation.

We arrived in Shirvan in the late afternoon. The hotel was owned by the government why they have the requirement to hold the passports of all guests overnight. The reason seemed to be security since they don’t want anybody to leave without paying their bill. Andrew had a big discussion with the staff at the reception since he wasn’t comfortable leaving his passport with them and he at least wanted to have a receipt for it. I took it easy and just went to my room while Andrew spent 20-30 min of his lifetime to get a receipt and to be on the save side.

In the evening we went for a walk around in town. Isabella and I shared a pizza topped with sausages in a small little restaurant. While placing our order we figured out the owner of the restaurant is deaf-mute but with the help of pen and paper we were able to place our order and even to have a small conversation with him. He also wanted to get his picture taken with us and we did him the favor.

Back at the hotel a wedding party was going on but there wasn’t too much to see. People were just sitting around on tables without any music or dancing going on, probably because dancing in public isn’t allowed in Iran.

We also heard the truck arrived at a Mercedes workshop and should be repaired around midnight. Sam will then drive all night to catch up with us tomorrow morning. He is also pushing to get the truck repaired as quickly as possible since his visa and the truck permit will expire in two days.

Walk in the Desert and Desire of Iranians to leave their Country

In the morning we drove 1-2 km out of Mesr, a village which I wasn’t able to find on the map, to go for a walk in the Dasht-e Kavir Salt Desert. I’ve been to many deserts before and there is nothing which makes this desert particular interesting. The dunes were pretty low which made it easy to walk. There were some bushes in the sand, probably because we are close to an oasis, and a mountain range in the background.

Afterwards we continued our travel towards Gandag, which I also couldn’t find on the map, where we stopped for lunch. It was the usual chicken or lamb kebab with rice we are eating since weeks. It’s often the only available choice thus many small restaurants don’t have a menu and answer your question on what is available with one word which is “kebab”. The rice always need to be ordered separately, otherwise you just get a few pieces of meat without any side dish. When it’s served you often only see a huge pile of rice completely covering the meat which looks kind of strange. It’s actually a lot of food and you can feed two people with it so we often ended up sharing a dish. Also eating vegetables doesn’t seem popular. During my whole time in Iran I never managed to get a kebab with vegetables, only rice and meat. Onions always come separate, e.g. in the same basket with the bread and cutlery. Such a kebab and rice dish costs around 50 Rials (3.00 USD) which is quite cheap.

After lunch we drove to Damghan a sleepy, historic town. Its main attraction is the Tarikhaneh Mosque. It was constructed in the 1st century after the arrival of Islam and is therefore claimed to be the oldest surviving mosques in Iran. I found it kind of interesting to see since it was very basic but many other people didn’t like it since it didn’t have any of the beautiful tiles we saw in other mosques. Before leaving Damghan we had a quick look at the towns market. Isabella bought some lemon and saffron flavored pistachio nuts for the kids in the truck as she likes to call us. I got some dried apricots which are popular in Iran and therefore quite cheap compared to the prices back home. When I remember correctly I paid 80 Rials (4.70 USD) for one kilo of them.

When returning to the truck there was a bunch of kids around showing an interest in our truck and climbing on it to have a chat with our driver Sam. Originally, we wanted to spend the night in Damghan but same as yesterday our reservation got cancelled due to university exams in the area. Instead we drove to Bastam where we spent the night in a comfortable hotel.

Tonight my roommate Isabella was up for watching some TV. When she was browsing through the channels she quickly identified most programs available have some kind of religious content. You could watch people praying in a mosque and listen to speeches of religious leaders. Probably the TV program is dominated by religious stuff because of the religious government who has a huge impact on the live of the people in Iran. The only non-religious program available was a cooking show which Isabella ended up watching without understanding any word of Farsi.

Because of the strict rules of the religious government there are many young people who want to leave the country. They don’t want to do so because of economical reasons but to have more freedom in their lives such as not being forced to wear a headscarf when they aren’t Muslim (which is the case for a high percentage of young people), being able to party and dance in public or use the internet without any restriction. There is actually a high number of websites blocked in Iran including (but not,, or I also heard there is a high number of imprisoned journalists in Iran since the government want to have very much control over their citizens and the information flow in the country. Many people dream about moving either to Canada or Australia because these are countries where it’s most easy to get a visa for. They often have a second job to save up the required money for their move.

Birthday in the Salt Desert

It’s the 9th of May which is my birthday. I’m spending it driving through the Dasht-e Kavir Salt Desert in Iran. There are hundreds of locations I would prefer to be instead of here. Celebrating your birthday in Iran isn’t too much fun. No booze, no touching and no dancing in public. Basically everything which is kind of fun isn’t allowed. Also none of my friends is here with me and when you turn 37 you aren’t excited anymore to get older. Therefore, I wasn’t really looking forward to celebrate my birthday and didn’t tell anyone about it. The only persons who were aware of my birthday were the two crew members Jason and Sam since they have a passenger list with my name, passport number, birthdate and such.

At midnight I was hanging out in the courtyard of our hotel in Yazd. There was also my fellow traveler Chris from New Zealand who celebrates his birthday at the same day as I do. After congratulating him I showed him my passport and he was surprised to see it’s my birthday too. He then convinced the night porter of the hotel to put a couple of soft drinks on the house and celebrate our birthday with us. While we were “partying” I also got bitten by a number of mosquitos. I didn’t expect them to be here in the desert but luckily we are in a malaria free zone.

In the morning we were heading off to Meybod were we visited four different sights. The first one was Narin Qal’eh, a castle based on mud bricks built approx. 2,000 years ago. I didn’t listen to the explanations of our guide Mehdi so I can’t say much about it. What I found most breathtaking was the view on top of the castle overlooking the town and the mountain range in the background. Second was a carpet museum located in the Shah Abbasi Caravanserai. Here we could see a number of very old carpets and a guy demonstrating to us how they used to be made. The third stop was a mud brick icehouse which was used as kind of big fridge to store ice which was collected during winter time. The heart of the cooling mechanism is an underground area and a special dome with a hole in the ceiling, all reminding me of a big egg. Last was the town’s pottery and ceramic museum where we could see a number of plates and bowls in white and blue color.

We continued our drive to the Chak Chak Mountain where we arrived around lunch time. It was extremely hot and when our guide Mehdi announced we are going for a one hour hike up the mountain I thought I don’t really need the experience to climb a mountain in the midday heat, especially not in my Muslim outfit. So Isabella, Jason, Sam and I stayed back with the truck while a handful of other people went to climb it. When they came back approx. one hour later I found out there was actually a miscommunication by the guide. They only went up for 10-15min until they reached a shrine which is supposed to be the holiest of all mountain shrines of Zoroastrianism. There they had a look at the eternal burning fire and a conversation with one of the priests. If I had known this I would have gone as well but so I unfortunately missed it.

While people visited the Chak Chak Mountain Isabella and Jason prepared lunch for us which were some delicious sandwiches. We then continued our travel to the villages of Qaranaq and Garmeh where we saw the ruins of the ancient villages. Unfortunately I’m not able to find them on a map, so they might be spelled differently. The ruins in Qaranaq were much more impressive than those in Garmeh so when you have only limited time at hand make sure to visit Qaranaq. However, what made the visit to Garmeh especially exiting for our leader Jason was a farmer’s house where he felt in love with one of the goats. I’m not sure if she felt the same because when Jason tried to kiss her she was just staring at him.

Our home for tonight was supposed to be the small village of Khur but due to university exams in the area our hotel reservation got cancelled this morning and our guide Mehdi needed to find an alternative accommodation in the area. What he found was a basic hotel in the village of Mesr. Basic means the rooms were nothing but walls and a carpet on the ground which wasn’t an issue since we have full camping gear with us. The dining area was a small open air room in the courtyard of the hotel where we got dinner served since there were no restaurants around. Again I wasn’t able to find the two villages on the map, so they might be spelled differently

After dinner our crew members Jason and Sam surprised Chris and me with a birthday cake each. By then my birthday wasn’t a surprise anymore since the rumor got spread during the day and every couple of hours someone different came to me and whispered “Happy Birthday, Katja!” While blowing off the candles of my cake I made a wish and hope it will come true one day. I then shared my cake with everybody and instead of booze we had black tea with it.

More Sightseeing in Yazd, Plastic Surgery and Banking in Iran

It’s a non-travelling day. We are in Yazd and can spend the whole day with whatever we like to do. I started the day with a little sleep-in and a typical Iranian breakfast. It consisted of bread, feta type of cheese, tomatoes, cucumber and an egg. This is basically what we’ve been eating for the last weeks in Turkey and Iran but I don’t mind since I like this type of food.

My roommate Isabella was rebellious today and went to breakfast without her headscarf. Her joy lasted only five minutes until she got spotted by a female police officer hanging out in courtyard of the hotel were people having breakfast. The officer was actually here because of our leader Jason. He holds two passports and has presented a different passport at the check-in of the hotel than he was crossing the border with. Somehow the local police has detected this very quickly and came to the hotel to check the situation.

I personally don’t mind the headscarf too much. The only thing which bothers me is my hair is getting greasy underneath the headscarf so I need to wash it more often. The real challenge is to dry it afterwards since I don’t carry a hairdryer with me and aren’t allowed to leave my room without a headscarf which isn’t nice on wet hair.

After breakfast I went to town to see the major sights in the city center of Yazd. While some people in our group walked around with Andrew, who is very knowledgeable about Persian history, I decided to walk around on my own since I’m more interested in the atmosphere of the city than in historic facts.

First I had a look at the Jamed Kabir Mosque which was right next to our hotel. It had beautiful tiles in turquoise, blue, yellow and white color. But somehow I couldn’t enjoy the visit too much since by now I have seen enough mosques. My eyes seem to need a break before they can really appreciate more historic sights.

Next was the Roknedin Mauseleum of which I had seen the cupola from the street. With my eyes attached to the cupola I followed narrow streets until I found the entrance. In the inside of the building was a golden shrine decorated with flowers. There were even light bulbs on top of the shrine which are probably used to put light on it during nighttime.

After visiting two sights I just strolled around the city. Yazd seems to be a more conservative place than Tehran and Isfahan. Women in Yazd appear more covered and seek less opportunities to extend Islamic rules. But they still want to be pretty and in the bazar I saw them pressing their noses against the windows of the numerous shops selling golden jewelry. But what I didn’t see were signs of plastic surgery. In Tehran and Isfahan I saw many women and even men with a plaster on their nose indicating they recently got a nose job done. Plastic surgery is very popular in Iran and even when women cannot show major parts of their body in public they somehow feel pressured to be attractive and get their boobs and nose done or their eyes tattooed with permanent make-up.

Another interesting aspect about Iran is its Islamic Banking System. Financial institutions are requested to comply with the Sharia, the Islamic law. It doesn’t allow banks to charge interest but they call it service fee or so which is basically the same thing. Also international credit cards are widely not accepted in Iran so when you travel to this country make sure you carry lots of US Dollar cash. During the last few days in the country we also observed how the exchange rate was constantly declining. While we started changing at 17.8 Rials to 1 USD we are now at 16.2 Rials.

On the way back to the hotel I passed by the Amir Chakhmaq Mosque and Square. The mosque is currently under restoration and so I could only have a look on it from the outside.

In the evening we went back to restaurant we discovered last night and afterwards some people watched “A Separation” which is an Iranian movie produced in 2011 that managed to win an Oscar.

The Game and Sightseeing in Yazd

Do you know how to seduce a woman? If not the book “The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists” seems to be a must read among guys and you should get a copy of it. One of my fellow male travelers seems to be in the desperate need to find a woman. He lives in a very remote area with not too many women around which makes him a bit clumsy when it comes to picking up a woman. Our leader Jason has declared it his mission to help him finding a woman until the end of his trip. As a first step to complete his mission Jason has given him The Game book which is a self-help book for guys wanting to pick up women. Since then the book is kept safe and far away from all woman in the truck to not unveil the secrets of manhood.

Due to modern technology it’s easy for us women to get an executive summary of the book over the internet. Guys basically believe they need to demonstrate extreme confidence, be fun, hard to get and respond to every sign she’s not interested as it’s no big deal. Probably these simple advises are already a treasure for my fellow traveler searching for a woman since he looks very much desperate and need to learn how to relax and take hunting easy.

Today we drove from the caravanserai, where we have spent the last night in, to the city of Yazd. On the way either today or yesterday we passed the Sarv-e-Abarkuh, a 4,000 year old cypress which is one of the oldest trees on this planet. We first thought we have missed this sight until our local guide Mehdi clarified we actually had a pee stop next to it. However, neither I nor anybody else I have talked to has actually seen it. Well, we will survive without it.

We arrived in Yazd shortly before lunch time and visited the major sights even before checking-in to our hotel. Yazd is the center of Zoroastrianism, Iran’s oldest religion. Nowadays, there are only a few people left who are still practicing this religion while most others converted to Islam.

The first sight we visited were the two Towers of Silence situated in the outskirts of Yazd. These towers used to be a place for the dead. Zoroastrians created them as a storage place for dead bodies. They believed dead bodies are unclean and potential pollutants of everything they come in contact with. Therefore, dead bodies needed to be disposed as good as possible and the common procedure was to put them in a tower where they were very much exposed to the sun and birds. We also took some time to climb the small hills with the towers on top from where we had a wonderful view over the city.

The second sight we visited was the Zoroastrian Fire Temple in the center of Yazd which holds a fire continuously burning since 470 AD. Zoroastrian revere fire why they even built temples for it. The fire in this temple has been kept burning from past until today by a person who is among the Zoroastrian priests by adding a piece of dry wood and more durable wood such as almond or apricot several times a day.

After checking-in to our hotel we had some time off to relax and to get lunch. In the late afternoon we went to the Saheb a Zaman Club recommended by the Lonely Planet as a must-do activity while being in Yazd. It’s basically an Iranian type of gym for guys and if you like you can watch them exercising. When entering the club a sign reminded us ladies of wearing our Muslim coverage to not seduce the guys in the gym. The guys were all a level deeper in a kind of small arena. At the side of it was a guy playing a drum and singing to it. Underneath him was a big clock showing the exercise time elapsed. All exercises the guys were performing seemed to strengthen their body. While some of them were really into it and gave their best others were just standing in the position of the exercise performed but hardly moved their body.

After watching the exercises for an hour or so we continued to a restaurant recommended by our guide. We left Chris and Alistair behind at the gym where they have met some local Iranian girls which seemed to be better entertainment than dinner with us. The food at the restaurant was really nice, especially because they had a broad selection of different dishes. I really much enjoyed my chicken curry while my fellow travelers Andrew and Jason were playing chess. Jason seems to be a hopeless case in this game since he barely managed to beat Andrew who easily collected all of Jason’s chess pieces in the game.

More Persian Tombs and Overnight Stay in a Caravanserai

This morning we started to drive up north from Shiraz into the direction of Yazd. On the way we stopped to visit two major sights. The first one was the Naqsh-e Rustam site which are four tombs carved into rock. They belong to kings of the Persian Empire such as Darius the Great who built Persepolis we visited two days ago. All tombs are pretty high up from the ground so you can only look at them but not go inside to see the sarcophagus the kings are lying in. The surface of the tombs is shaped in the form of a cross and the actual entrance to the tomb is in the middle of the cross.

The second sight we visited today was the Tomb of Cyrus who founded the Persian Empire. There is actually not too much to see. The tomb is 11m high and pretty simple structured. There is a platform consisting of six tiers and on top of it is the actual chamber with the dead body. The tomb is also part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site called Pasargadae which used to be the capital of Cyrus the Great and is now his last resting place.

Before heading off to our home for the night we went shopping in a small town. Tonight we will be staying in the Zein-o-din caravanserai which we all very much excited about. Caravanserais are road-side inns from Persian time, so basically 400 year old hotels, which were built along the Silk Road. I’ve been told the caravanserais in this area used to be a day-trip by camel away from each other which is approx. 11km. All travelers on the Silk Road could spend the first night in the caravanserai for free and only needed to pay if staying more than one day.

Our local guide Mehdi told us there is currently no dinner served in this caravanserai why we needed to buy our own food. The little supermarket we went to didn’t had much choice but Isabella, who is according to my taste the best cook in our group, managed to buy lots of healthy food to prepare a delicious dinner for us. By now we are all kind of fed up with the chicken and lamb kebabs, which are often the only available choice in small restaurants, and are really looking forward to some healthier food. Especially we are missing vegetables in the Iranian cuisine since most dishes only consist of meat and rice which is also a challenge for our vegetarian Alistair who sometimes is really challenged to find something eatable.

The small supermarket we were shopping in also offered an interesting choice of products which you wouldn’t find at home. There was yoghurt advertised as “high-fat yoghurt” which was interesting to see since back home everything is marketed as low-fat product because people fear to become fat from their unhealthy lifestyle. Other interesting products included tined apples and cherries which I don’t know from the supermarkets back home. Cherries actually seem to be one of the most popular fruits in Iran and probably that’s why people feel the need to conserve them in a tin.

We arrived in the caravanserai shortly before sunset. Isabella, Patricia and Emilie volunteered to cook for us and in the meanwhile I spent some time at the roof of the building overlooking the mountains and the desert in this area. I also had a look at the “room” which was very basic but nice. You sleep in a small wooden chamber which has enough space for two mattresses laid out at the ground.

Dinner was very delicious. We had a three course meal in the courtyard of the caravanserai. It consisted of soft local cheese for starter, spaghetti with vegetables for main and fruit for dessert. After dinner the guys from the caravanserai were dancing for us which I didn’t watch since I don’t like performances just done for tourists. Instead I was soaking-up the atmosphere of this very special place.

City Tour in Shiraz and Family Visit

Shiraz is the southernmost city we will visit during our stay in Iran. The city is mainly known for two things: Shirazi Wine and literature. You might ask how it comes wine is produced in an Islamic country? Actually this is not the case anymore but Shiraz used to be the wine capital of Persia and some of the finest wines in the Middle East were produced here. They were white and either dry for drinking young or sweet for aging.

During today’s city tour with our local guide Mehdi we discovered the second aspect Shiraz is known for which is Persian literature. The first site we visited was the Tomb of Hafez who was a Persian lyric poet. Honestly, I haven’t heard anything about Hafez until I stood next to his tomb. Before actually entering the tomb complex Jason and Alistair purchased a piece of paper predicting their future. It was in a small box together with a number of other papers and the guy selling the papers was holding a budgie in his hands that was picking one of the papers with his beak. The fortune of Jason said he will receive a message which he will like very much and the fortune of Alistair said he will become pregnant. I’m really wondering how this should work since obviously Alistair is of male gender.

The tomb complex of Hafez itself wasn’t too exciting for me since I’m more into living people than dead ones. The tomb is situated in a pavilion and there were quite a number of local people touching his marble coffin or praying right next to it.

The next stop of our tour around the city of Shiraz was the tomb of Saadi, another major Persian poet I have never heard about. It was again a big marble coffin being touched by people and in case you understand Farsi you could read some of his poems on the wall of the building. At the tomb complex they were also selling some Shirazi ice crème and although I wasn’t in the mood for it Mehdi made us tasting it since he was convinced it’s the best ice crème in all of Iran. I don’t share his opinion and wasn’t even able to finish the two scoops of ice crème together with my roommate Isabella.

We continued by taxi to the next sight which was the Arg of Karim Khan. In former times this citadel was used as living quarters and prison. Today the citadel is a museum only. From the outside it very much looks like a fort and from the inside it looks like a residential area. You could even find a hamam inside its walls.

The last stop of today’s tour was the Vakil Mosque which is one of the older mosques in Iran. Interestingly I was the only one in our group who didn’t need to pay an entrance fee since my outfit looks very much Muslim. The guy at the entrance thought I’m here for praying and therefore I didn’t need to pay an entrance fee. The highlights of this mosque were the beautiful tiles on the wall and the ceiling as well as a large number of columns.

When we came back to the hotel our driver Sam was working on the truck. He had oil all over his hands and really seemed to enjoy this filthy look. My roommate Isabella felt somehow sorry he wasn’t able to join our tour of the mausoleums and went to buy a softdrink for him. While doing so she got completely lost in the narrow streets of the area and popped up in our room two hours later.

In the evening Sam had showered and was ready to follow the invitation of our guide Mehdi to come and visit his family. Chris and Alistair managed to sneak out. Chris, who is crazy about football, was watching a match on TV and Alistair went for one of his long walks around the city. All others went to Mehdi’s home. He even had arranged his brother driving some of use while others followed in a taxi.

After half an hour drive we arrived in the residential area Mehdi is living in. We quickly purchased a bunch of flowers and sweets for his mother which Isabella handed over to her. The flat of the family looked very modern and inviting. Mehdi, who is in his late twenties, is living here together with his father, mother, sister and brother who were all there when we arrived. While Mehdi’s sister was serving tea and dried fruit, his mother was offering us strawberries and oranges. The weird thing about it was we were the only ones eating and although we offered them a few times to eat with us they refused to do so. It seems to be part of their culture that only guests are eating but not the host. Also the conversation with them was a bit weird since I tried to connect to Mehdi’s family by asking questions which Mehdi answered straight away without translating them. His parents were only sitting there smiling and sometimes talked to each other. After I asked Mehdi several times to translate what we are saying the atmosphere improved and we managed to have a little chat with his family.

One of the first things Mehdi’s parents wanted to know is if I’m Muslim because my outfit looks really Muslim like. They also offered us to take off our headscarves which Isabella and Patricia were glad to do. I kept mine on since I really want to experience how it is to be completely covered at all times during my entire stay in Iran. Mehdi’s mother also told us during specific times of the year the government is not only requesting all women to wear a headscarf but they are also requested to wear black color only. I guess my current outfit is really much conservative in an Islamic sense and would even be perfect for this request.

It was also interesting to experience which questions are considered appropriate and which not. I asked Mehdi to tell us how his parents have met. His answer was that my question is inappropriate to ask. On the other side Mehdi’s mother asked straight away for the age of all women in our group. We spent approx. two hours with the family and I really much enjoyed this look behind the curtain and wish we have more opportunities to do so.

The Ruins of Persepolis

Today’s drive was from Isfahan to Shiraz which is the home town of our local guide Mehdi. On the way we stopped in Persepolis, “The City of the Persians”, which used to be the ceremonial capital of the First Persian Empire and is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For my fellow traveler Andrew visiting this sight was one of the highlights of his trip. He studied Persian history and always seems to know much more about the places we visit than our local guide.

The entrance fee to Persepolis was only a few cents. While in some countries you have to spend a fortune to enter a sight, the entrance fees in Iran are very cheap and affordable for everybody. They also seem to have the same price for locals and tourists while in other countries you have to pay a special and much higher price when you are identified as a foreigner.

The ruins of Persepolis reminded me of ruins I saw in Greece. The city is very much destroyed and you need lots of fantasy to imagine how it looked like hundreds of years ago. Mehdi explained to us Persepolis was actually not a residential area but Darius the Great built it in the heart of his empire for celebrating the nation and the religious festival of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Less than 200 years later it was destroyed by Alexander the Great.

We spent 2-3 hours walking around the ruins of Persepolis. It was pretty hot especially when you are covered up completely in a long manteaux and a headscarf. About half time we stopped at a small café within the area of the sight and enjoyed some cold cherry juice and ice crème. We also met a couple of local people who were again very friendly and interested in talking to us. For me it’s really the people who make Iran such a lovely place on earth.

It also happened at Persepolis that Jason offered me a bet because he knows how much I like betting and especially winning my bets. He said: “I bet you I have your name tattooed on my ass.” He will show me the tattoo when we go out partying in Ashgabat in a couple of days. If he has the tattoo I will need to pay for the first round of tequila otherwise he will pay for it. I knew he will try to trick me with that bet and thought he will either use a permanent marker to put my name on his ass or he has a tattoo which could be interpreted as my name such as an alphabet or so. However, seeing his ass for a round of drinks sounded a good deal to me and so I entered the bet with him.

In the late afternoon we drove the remaining 70km to Shiraz where we stayed in a small hotel which was built and afterwards sold by Reza. He’s an Iranian guy owning the tour operator Uppersia we are using in Iran. It was also Reza who took care of all our invitations to Iran which we needed for the visa application process. He booked all our accommodation and provided us with a local guide who is with us during our entire stay in Iran. As a group of travelers you are actually not allowed to drive around on your own but you are requested to have a local guide with you at all times. Actually it isn’t too bad since Mehdi proofed him helpful when it came to directions in local places and translation services.

On the way to Shiraz we spotted quite a number of people having a pick-nick right next to the highway. Most of them had even put up a little tent to be protected from the sun. Iranians don’t seem to be bothered by the traffic and as long as there is a green piece of land they are happy to sit on it and have a pick-nick. We also spotted this when driving into Shiraz. It was a Friday night and as Friday is a free day in Iran (similar to our Sunday) there were many people out on the streets having a pick-nick. The parks of the city were really crowded and we even spotted people sitting on the green in the middle of a roundabout having their pick-nick. Probably it would have been fun to join them but we didn’t prepare for a pick-nick and so we had a less exciting group dinner in the restaurant associated with the hotel.

Isfahan City Tour and Night with local Couch-Surfers

We met at 9am with our local guide Mehdi for a city tour of Isfahan. Actually it was only Isabella, Jason and me who went since the others have already visited most of the sights yesterday. Isfahan is with a population of 1.6 million the third largest city in Iran. In ancient times it used to be an important city of the Persian Empire and one of the largest cities in the world. The city was also an important stop along the Silk Road. This makes it an interesting place to visit since many of the places, bridges, mosques and minarets are very much intact.

We started our tour at the Naghsh-e Jahan Square which is one of the largest inner-city squares in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the square three major buildings are situated which are the Shah Mosque, the Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque and the Ali Qapu Palace. In the center of the square is a park where you can sit and relax or go around in a horse-drawn carriage.

First we visited the Shah Mosque which still seems to be used for special religious ceremonies. It also features a very efficient sound system. When you stand in the middle of the dome and whisper something it gets repeated seven times or so and people standing in the courtyard just outside the dome are able to hear what you are saying. I tried it out with Isabella and it was really working. Furthermore, the mosque is covered with beautiful tiles in green, blue, white and golden color.

The next stop was the Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque which I personally found even more breathtaking than the Shah Mosque. It was once built as private mosque for the royal court and is therefore smaller in size and more splendiferous. It appeared much more yellow / golden and had beautiful illumination effects. There were also many inscriptions in white color on blue ground on the walls of the dome which are the names of some spiritual leaders or so.

After this visit we rested in a little tea house where we had black tea and local sweets. It was very nicely decorated featuring a collection of lamps on the ceiling and lots of kitschy items on the walls. When entering the tea house there was one entrance for families and another one for individuals. We chose the one for individuals since we aren’t a family yet. Here we also spotted 2-3 couples using the tea house as dating location. The tea house was again on the basement of the building thus hidden from the public and the police who like to hunt for religious misbehavior such as being too close together or holding hands in public. Therefore, tea houses and coffee shops in the basement are a very popular spot for young people in Iran.

The third stop on our tour was the Ali Qapu Palace which is also situated at the Naghsh-e Jahan Square. It had a number of floors and from the very top one you had a good view on the square. I even climbed over a barrier which was put in place for construction purposes just to get a good shot of the huge square. Especially interesting to see was the music room on one of the upper floors of the palace. Here musicians actually performed for the king. The room is nicely decorated and you can spot the shapes of all kinds of local instruments on the walls.

Next was the Chehel Sotoun Pavilion which is situated in the middle of a beautiful park. The pavilion was used for receptions and entertainment purposes. It has nice wooden columns on the outside and colorful frescos in the inside. After this visit it was time for lunch which we had in one of the restaurants of the square. It had very colorful walls and windows and seemed to be a popular spot for the locals. I had chicken kebab with rice, probably the best one I had in all of Iran. Mehdi and Jason had some non-alcoholic beer with peach flavor which tasted more like juice than beer.

The last stop of our tour was the Vank Cathedral or simply called the Armenian Church. On the way there we ran into a school class and I took some time to talk to the girls and got my picture taken with each of them. Due to the low number of tourists coming to Iran people are still very much exited when they see you and want to talk to you and get their picture taken with you.

The Armenian Church was my highlight of today’s tour. It’s very much different and its architecture seems to be a mixture of a traditional church and a mosque. The walls were decorated in beautiful frescos and reminding me a bit of the churches I have seen in Ethiopia.

In the evening Patricia, Jason and I went out to meet some of the local couch-surfers. Couch-surfers are people who have signed-up on the website and either host people for free on their couch or travel around the world and sleep on couches rather than hotel beds. Jason is a member of couch-surfing and therefore got in contact with them in Isfahan. Each Thursday they meet behind the artist’s house and go for a walk along the river and the three of us joined them on the walk together with a number of other travelers from all around the world. In total we were maybe 30 people or so and I really much enjoyed talking to a number of them. One of them was an Iranian fashion designer and she showed me a different way of wearing my headscarf which I applied straight away.

Jason ended-up being chased by a guy who seemed to be gay so after finishing the walk he and Patricia went back to the hotel. I continued with maybe 15 couch-surfers to a garden type of restaurant half an hour outside of town. It had a nightclub type of atmosphere but obviously there was no alcohol and no dancing since this is strictly forbidden in Iran. Instead we were chilling-out, smoking shisha and drinking black tea. The atmosphere was very much relaxed, headscarves went further back and boys were spoon-feeding ice crème to the girls. So this is what young people do when going out at night. I also heard gardens outside of towns are a very popular meeting spot since they are a bit far away from the public and the police. People just try to avoid meeting in larger groups since this would gain the attention of the police and cause trouble. So life in Iran is actually not that bad. People are good in finding their ways around the strict rules and enjoy themselves.

Mohammad, one of the couch-surfers, and his friend drove me back to the hotel. There were already two people waiting for me. The first one was our local guide Mehdi who earlier on this day invited me to his room. The receptionist said he’s worried because I was out on my own and called him to inform him I’m back in the hotel. Mehdi than called my roommate Isabella because he wanted to “talk” to me and woke her up in the middle of the night. I wasn’t around since I spent time with Habib I met two days ago. However, it was interesting to see I could have won the bet to have sex with the local guide (see post of Apr 23) but I decided not to since there are things in life no money and no bet will pay for.

Islamic Dress Code and Entertainment in Iran

It’s the first of two days in Isfahan. Since we left our local guide Mehdi behind to help translate while our driver Sam is fixing the truck we had nobody to take us around in town. Most people got a map and a list of sights to visit out of the Lonely Planet and went sightseeing on their own. I applied my German efficiency and decided to not go sightseeing since probably Mehdi will arrive later on today and take us on a tour tomorrow where we going to see the same sights a second time.

Instead I just strolled around in town. Walking on your own has the advantage of you getting much easier in contact with local people than when staying with a group of people. The Iranian people are the friendliest I have seen on earth. Honestly, whenever you go somewhere people simply start talking to you just like this and demonstrate a genuine interest in you. The manteaux, I have bought in Istanbul, let me appear very Muslim and so local people ask me maybe 5-10 times a day if I’m Muslim. They actually noticed I’m not Iranian because of my white skin and blue eyes but also because of the type of headscarf I’m wearing which isn’t common in Iran. Mostly they think I’m from the United Arab Emirates because of the type of clothes I’m wearing.

Speaking about clothes, wearing a headscarf and long loose fitting clothes is required by all women in Iran, even from non-religious foreigners like me. Iran is a Muslim country and also the government is Muslim. Therefore, they have stricter Islamic rules than other countries such as Turkey or Egypt. The government simply made it a law women have to wear a headscarf and the police is checking on the streets if women are dressed appropriately. Many Iranian women, especially the young ones, try to extend the rules and therefore wear the headscarf in a way showing lots of hair in the area of their forehead. Especially in large cities like Tehran and Isfahan people are more liberal than in more remote areas of the country.

The main reason why women are required to wear a headscarf and loose fitting clothes is otherwise men would be tempted by them. On the other side its assumed women are never tempted by men why they don’t have such a strict dress code. While women need to cover up completely men are only required to wear long trousers and wearing a t-shirt is absolutely fine for them. Speaking from a women’s perspective I cannot confirm I’m never tempted by men. Actually there are quite some guys out there which easily could make me go crazy. I also cannot confirm wearing a headscarf and loose fitting clothes avoids men from being tempted by women. They still have those shiny eyes and want to touch you when they feel attracted by you.

So it also happened today that my roommate Isabella got stopped by the police because the sleeves of her blouse were considered 3-4 cm too short and she was requested to put her jacket on.

When strolling around in Isfahan today I also spend some time in the parks of the city. Iranians love flower arrangements which you can find in every hotel and home. They also love their parks and gardens which seem to be a major part of public enjoyment since most other enjoyments such as drinking alcohol, dancing, touching people or more relaxed clothes in public are forbidden by law. Instead the Iranians hang-out in public parks which are also a popular dating spot. I observed many young couples sitting close to each other in the parks of the city and holding their hands. Here they have some privacy since most young people still stay with their parents and it’s also impossible for the police to look behind each bush.

Another challenge of young couples is sex before marriage which is officially not acceptable. Around the marriage girls will be checked if their virginal membrane is still intact. Therefore, casual sex before marriage is mainly concentrated on the backdoor.

In the evening around 5pm our driver Sam and our local guide Mehdi arrived in Isfahan. After they have spent last night in the truck right next to the highway, they have managed to repair the truck this morning and catch-up with us again. Both of them joined us for dinner for which we went to the posh Abbasi Hotel across the street which used to be a caravanserai hundreds of years ago. There we had a spinach based soup which is said to be a popular local dish. Although I wasn’t in the mood for soup I very much enjoyed it as soon as I have tasted it. Afterwards I spend some more time with Habib, the Iranian guy I had met yesterday.