Crossing the Iranian border was a big concern of mine from the very beginning, way back when I first started planning this trip. The reason being, that officially motorcycles over 250cc are illegal in Iran and woman are not allowed to ride. But Iran is a strange country where the law is one thing and the way people interpret it, another. Normally these laws apply to Iranian citizens but not so much to tourists on big bikes – about 95% have no problems at the border crossing. So I was quite confident everything would be fine, but just in case I had a back up plan. A double entry visa for Uzbekistan in case I got turned around at the Iranian border and had to go back through Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan.
So at the Turkmeni border crossing for the very last time I had to do my “drone smuggler” routine, but once I arrived at the Iranian border gate everything was easy and straightforward. There was a lot of paperwork but no fees. Three different officers checked my visa and carnet. They were all super nice and while I was waiting I was offered a cup of tea. This kindness and hospitality continued throughout my whole stay in Iran and I can honestly say I’ve never before or since felt as safe as a solo woman traveller as I did in Iran.
Before you enter Iran make sure you have enough cash in American $ or Euros to cover your whole stay in the country. Due to sanctions foreign credit cards cannot be used in Iran, I only changed US$100 into rial at the border, (cause the rate wasn’t that good) just in case I needed it for petrol or an emergency before I got to a major town.
Welcome to Iran
Iran welcomed me the best possible way when I was welcomed by Moshen Qomi from Bojnord!
Moshen is quite a well known personality amongst travellers who visit Iran, he runs the Facebook page Overland in Iran and is a great resource if you need any advice on how to travel through Iran. Moshen put me up at his aunt’s place and I got to hang out with his family for the whole day. Firstly we had a lovely picnic together….
…and later on dinner.
Moshen also helped me to get a sim card and exchange money and that made me realise, just how hard the Iranian system can be to get their head around for foreigners. Instead of a big shopping mall there are small corner shops everywhere and it’s quite hard to distinguish which one is the post office and which one sells sim cards. Also, not many people speak English here but if you approach them seeking help they will go out of their way to sort you out. Such good people these Iranians.
For many years Iranian culture was very close to me as I was married to an Iranian immigrant in Australia, so I sort of knew what to expect here. I’ve always found Iranian culture fascinating and now after seeing and experiencing it all first-hand I’ve got a far greater understanding and it fascinates me even more! I’m not going to bang on about how Iran is perceived in the world’s media and how distorted the public’s knowledge of Iran is, but the fact is, Iran is a stable country with a very low crime rate and is very open to tourism these days.
But there are some things you have to be aware before you go there. When you travel through Iran you need to prepare yourself for being the centre of attention ALL THE TIME! Iranians love foreign travellers and treat them a little bit like “celebrities”. The moment you stop the bike there will be plenty of people around you trying to talk to you, taking selfies and most likely offering you food. That is very sweet but it can be quite overwhelming and irritating at times (and it really makes you realise what real celebrities put up with everyday, hehe). But you need to understand this is the Iranian culture and that they mean well. It’s a passionate and very giving nation.
If you’re a man, travelling through Iran is easy peazy. In the Muslim world travellers bring good luck to their homes so people will invite you to their houses at any opportunity. If you are a women, you won’t get quite as many invitations. Single men cannot host women for the night and married men will only invite you on behalf of his whole family if his wife gives him permission to bring you into their home. Women in Iran are very respected and as I mentioned before – I’ve never felt safer than in Iran, even when I got arrested I felt safe… but I’ll cover that later on!
Another thing you have to be aware of is the TRAFFIC! I haven’t been everywhere yet but so far I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life! It’s really hard to understand how such nice, cultured and sophisticated people lose their minds when they get in their cars!
The rules are, there are no rules and the only way to survive in this chaos is to be aggressive and push in (well, that was my way to survive anyway hehehe). Riding through the cities is very stressful so if you are planning to ride through major cities plan it so you do it between 12 – 5pm because at that time most Iranians are resting in their houses – it’s sort of like “siesta”. At that time all the businesses are closed, there are far less cars on the road and little towns and villages turn into “ghost towns”. Before and after this time, it’s just mayhem!
Ok, enough background info, time to get back on the road…
So I didn’t have my Iranian route completely planned out (you know me, research is just not my thing). But I found out about a few interesting places to see along the way. So I’d heard about this little oasis in the desert which I badly wanted to check out. I only knew that it was somewhere on the way to Tabas and so I hoped it would be obvious where I needed to turn off, but it wasn’t. I was riding up and down the highway wondering which turn to take, there were a couple of signs at the intersections but all in Iranian so I had no clue where to go.
It was getting late and I finally decided to turn onto a dirt track, hoping I would find the oasis at the end of it but instead it lead me to these fiery mountains separated by a canyon!
And there was no other place I wanted to be for the night 🙂
Luckily I had reception so I contacted Moshen and asked him to do a little research for me, to see if he could find out where the hell the oasis was. Moshen sent me back the coordinates for Ezmeyghan village, which was luckily just 7km away! Awesome, it will be an easy ride tomorrow 🙂
I woke up early in the morning, I wanted to pack up as soon as possible as It was getting extremely hot very fast. This time I had no problem finding the village… and oh boy, It was a real oasis in the desert! A quiet little village with palm trees and rice fields surrounded by the desert.
I knew there was supposed to be a hotel in the village and when I finally found it, it turned out to be closed. There was a sign on the wall with a phone number. It was the middle of the day so most of the people were hiding from the heat and resting but around the corner I saw a man working on a big compressor. I asked him if he could call the owner of the hotel for me and he kindly did. With the use of gestures he relayed that the owner would be there in 30 min.
So I sat in the shade and waited…
It turned out to be a family business…
They all greeted me at the entrance, prepared my lunch and asked what time I wished to have dinner. “Could I please have it at 6pm”, they looked at me surprised. Hmm “What time do you normally serve dinner?” I asked. “Between 8 and 9pm, but as you’re the only one here, it’s not a problem, we can prepare your food earlier”. This is another thing you must know about Iranians, they stay up late and eat late (well, by my standards anyway! haha).
The hotel was more of a heritage home with a few rooms and a great view of the rice fields.
There were no beds, just a mattress on the floor. The cost was about US$25 for the night with 3 meals. I also received a box of dates – that were the best dates I had ever had in my life, they were so delicious and tender, they were just melting in my mouth… ok, I’ll stop now, I think you get the point.
The whole place had such a great energy, I just felt fantastic!
After lunch I went for a little look around the village. It was so peaceful and quiet…
The next morning Chillie and I said “khoda hafez” to our hosts and headed south…
Central west and Southern Iran is very much desert, the roads are in great condition and mostly straight but I didn’t get bored. Being in the desert makes me happy 🙂
Just every now and then you need to watch out for Iranian panthers or lions or whatever you call them!
…and cops! They come out of nowhere too!
I’ve become really good at this police thing! It wasn’t a surprise that the policeman was very polite, he hardly spoke any English but that didn’t stop him being nice. I admitted to speeding as I always do when I speed and asked if I could pay the fine when I got to the police station in Shiraz. The policeman just smiled and told me to slow down and go 🙂
Next stop was Yazd – a UNESCO recognised historical city which has unique Persian architecture. Wandering through the tight streets of the old town was a real delight!
Yazd has a very unique architectural feature on most buildings – it’s nicknamed the “City of Windcatchers”. Catchers are the openings on the the top of the towers which create natural ventilation in the buildings. Pretty ingenious design I think!
The next day I went further South to the Rocky village of Meymand, a very ancient village which is located near Shahr-e Babak city in Kerman Province. Firstly I flew my ‘honey’ above the village to see where the most interesting sights were and to save me from unnecessary walking (you know me and walking, we just don’t gel).
Aha! The heart of the village is just around the corner, so I parked Chillie in the “city centre”.
It didn’t look like people still lived in these cave houses anymore, they treat them more like holiday houses. A family which were having a picnic invited me into theirs to show me how it looks inside. Damn, how much time would it take to make a hole in the rock the size of this room using only primitive tools – funny, but that’s all I could think off. Oh, I also normally wonder if the people who lived there originally were happy with their lives, if they were content.
At the end of the day I finally made it to Pasargad, the capital of the Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus the Great who had ordered its construction (559–530 BC); it was also the location of his tomb.
Someone on the road had recommended to me that it might be worth seeing and sure it has significant historical meaning, but it’s not my cup of tea.
It had been a long day, after 550km in the heat I was really exhausted. I stayed in the parking lot near the Pasargad for the night. And this is another thing I love about Iran – in every town there are designated free camping places – mostly in the parks, but it’s also absolutely normal to see people sleeping near their cars or truck at the parking lots near the road just like this…
I like to have some privacy in public places so I set up my tent, but not to be, immediately I had some company…
And I gained some kids too!
A couple of days before I arrived in Shiraz I’d received an invitation through Instagram from Mohamed and his wife. Perfect! It’s so much better staying with someone in big cities – trying to work out what to see is a real hassle. I stayed with Mohamed’s family for the weekend and it was such a fantastic experience. The whole time I was there I was being enlightened and thoroughly spoilt by them all.
We started our sightseeing with Shiraz’s famous ice-cream!
Then all the other highlights of Shiraz:
The Nasir al-Mulk Mosque which is known as the Pink mosque because of it’s marvellous design.
Vakil Mosque is considered to be one of the masterpieces of the Zand period.
Shopping in Vakil Bazaar is a must!
On Sunday I was invited to their summer house where the whole family meets every week.
After all these months of solo travels it was nice to be surrounded by family and feel all the love and kindness. The kids danced, adults sang and we all ate like crazy!!!
We even had to run down to the shop to get some extra bread!
It was time to say farewell to my hosts, next stop Persepolis! Being a tourist in 40 degree heat is not my favourite thing, but there are some things you just cannot skip. There is so much history in this country! This is Persepolis – the Persian Empire’s capital founded by Darius around 515 BC.
And at the end of the day I arrived in Esfahan. Other overlanders had recommended to me the Amir Kabir Hostel and I will recommend it to you too – it’s got secure parking (not that you have to worry about bike theft here) and quite good facilities so I stayed there for two nights to recharge my batteries.
Esfahan is a beautiful city, Persians called it “Nesf-e-Jahan”, which means “Half World”. Naqsh-e-Jahan Square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the largest city squares in the world. Absolutely stunning!
And the markets are awesome too!
After few days of sightseeing, generally behaving like a tourist and sleeping in a normal bed I was getting itchy to camp again, so I took off once more and made a detour from the main road to seek a quiet place for my tent. Not far after I passed a village I saw some ruins. Yep! That will do 🙂 I rode inside the ruins to hide Chillie as much as I could so she’d not be visible from the road. But unfortunately nothing is hidden so easily in Iran!
When my camp was finally ready, I sat down on my chair to stretch out my legs and… I had my first visitor! A local rider again using gestures asked me if I was ok and if I needed anything, I could tell he was inviting me to his house but I kindly thanked him and said I’ll stay here for the night. He left in a rush but came back a few minutes later with grapes and icy cold water. Wow, I’ll never get over this kindness! He wished me goodnight and left.
Soon after that I had another visitor on a bike who also didn’t speak English but his body language was not so kind. He asked if I was alone, I looked at him pretending I didn’t understand and kept looking at my map. He pull out his mobile, made a phone call and left. Phew, he’s gone… now I can go to sleep… or so I hoped!
Soon after that a police car arrived with a whole bunch of men! Oh dear, I wonder what they want?
And it took me a little while to understand why they were there. They were trying to explain to me that it was dangerous to camp there and that the wild dogs could attack me. What I was trying to explain to them was that they didn’t have to worry about me, wild dogs won’t get into my tent so I was completely safe. But they didn’t want to accept my reasoning, and started to look quite irritated. They told me to pack up and follow them. So I did. All this time I was convinced they were just taking me to a designated camping area, but we ended up at the police station! “Excellent” I thought! They’re going to let me camp at the police station, how good is that! But as it turned out – I sort of got arrested!
They sat me down in a room and checked my passport and visa, the interpreter on the phone told me that I was taken to the police station because the police were concerned about my safety and that women can’t camp alone in Iran. Fair enough, trying to explain myself and saying that I’ll be fine was pointless. So I sat and waited. I translated on my phone the sentence “Can I set up my tent in your garden?” and showed it to almost every policeman in the room – they all shook their head “no, no”. So what are you going to do with me? They had no answer. The policeman who was dealing with my case had been looking a bit stressed this whole time…
During the next two hours there were a lot of phone calls while I sat and waited. Finally the mayor of the village rocked up! The translator on the phone told me that Mr Mayor and his wife would like to invite me to their house for the night! Hooray! I showed the mayor my translated sentence “Can I set up my tent in your garden?” at which he laughed and shook his head.
I said goodbye to all the policemen and thanked them for the tea. I followed the mayor to his house where his wife, mother and daughter greeted me on arrival. After tea I asked them if they wouldn’t mind if I went off to bed as I was extremely exhausted. It had been a big day!
The next morning I was a bit more social as more family relatives had arrived for breakfast.
We had some ice-cream too! Ice-cream is bad for you but it’s good for us!
Then the mayor himself gave me a little tour around Ebrahim Abad and its ancient qanat and bathhouse.
Chillie and I had created quite a scene…
…and we even had our own entourage!
The further west I headed the larger the mountains were getting!
I detoured from the main road to check out the Genj Nameh Waterfall. Apparently it’s the most important waterfall in the province but to be honest I was expecting something more spectacular. I mean it’s a nice waterfall but really small or maybe the large crowd around it made it look small 😉
After my “wild camping” experience I had learnt a valuable lesson! You either pick a place that no one can see you or you camp in designated areas! And as I mentioned before – pretty much every city in Iran has parks where travellers can camp for free. So I found a park in Kermanshah and I started setting up camp. I was soon surrounded by some girls who were giggling and trying to explain to me something in English. It took me quite a while before I finally understood.
So they were trying to warn me that there was a thief in the park who steals from tents at night. They suggested I should move my tent nearer theirs for safety. Sure why not! And as the Iranians do, straight away I was offered tea and food but I graciously declined…
The next morning I woke up excited “It’s my birthday today, I have to do something special!” So I did! I headed towards the Iraqi border amongst the mountains of the Iranian Kurdistan region. This ride though the mountains was a real highlight and the perfect birthday gift to myself.
Just before the best twisties ever started, I detoured to check out Quri Qaleh which is believed to be the biggest and longest water cave in Asia. But for me the best part was the fact that I could finally cool down!
And then it started! One of the best paved roads I have ever ridden in my life!
I never ever thought I’d spend my birthday in such a special place on top of the world!
It’s hard to imagine now that not that long ago this beautiful region was a war zone. There are still plenty of “military fortifications” on the top of the hills and I even got my passport checked along the way.
And again I really regret not doing any proper research beforehand. Apparently the Iraqi Kurdistan area is a stable region and you’re allowed to enter it from here and there are no issues with getting a tourist visa at the border. Unfortunately I already had commitments in Azerbaijan so I couldn’t detour this time. This is one of my biggest regrets on this journey.
I took my time that day, stopped plenty of times for pictures and for the night I rode down the valley to the charming little village Uraman Takht where I found quite a flash hotel for $40! Normally this would be a steep price for me, but hey it’s my birthday!
I was the only one in the hotel so I had a nice quiet dinner complete with birthday candles… but forgot the lighter!
In the morning I headed to Osku. I picked a random hostel from Maps Me and this time it actually existed. It was more of a workers cheap hotel. Well, it was dirt cheap ($9) for my own room. But you get what you pay for – the cleanliness was questionable, so I slept in my clothes just to be safe.
The attraction for the next day was just wow! The Kandovan village is an ancient village in Iran’s East Azerbaijan Province. The natural rock formations contain caves that have been turned into homes. It looks like a giant termite colony. I thoroughly inspected it with Honey…
Some of these houses are at least 700 years old and still inhabited. These days villagers have updated their caves with electricity, running water and plumbing. Life goes on…
Just before I reached Tabriz I had lunch with some of my Instagram followers. One of the real joys of social media is that occasionally I get to meet people in the real world whom previously had only been friends in the virtual world.
We ordered one of my favourite Iranian dishes Abgoosht, but there is quite a procedure involved in eating it! Yum!
…and I got spoiled too!
In Tabriz I was welcomed by Saeedeh and Rouzbeh, a couple of pharmacists and people I consider family.
And again I experienced generosity and kindness that never ceases to amaze me. We spent a lot of time eating and sightseeing in Tabriz..
There aren’t many things I refuse to eat but this breakfast just didn’t appeal to me??
Tabriz is the capital of Iranian Azerbaijan and it was one of the most important commercial centres on the Silk Road. The bazaar of Tabriz is one of the oldest in the Middle East and the largest one in the world.
You can easily spend the whole day and so we did! It doesn’t matter where we come from, us girls love a bit of shopping…
With a little break for Abgoosht…
The road to the Caspian Sea lead me though the West Azerbaijan Province and again It was really very different scenery to the rest of Iran that I’d seen already. Really different types of mountain ranges. I took a shortcut through some gravel roads and had just another great day of riding.
And for Iran’s grand finale I made it to the Caspian Sea – Gisoum Beach to be specific. Somehow I had hoped to be able to go for a swim but when I got there I quickly realised it wasn’t going to be so easy – I didn’t have a special swimming outfit!
All this time wearing long sleeve clothes and a hijab wasn’t a problem but here where the humidity reaches nearly 100%, it was a real struggle! The thought of being in Azerbaijan the next day was tantalising… the first thing I was going to do when I got to Azerbaijan – go for a swim!
Camping on the beach is absolutely normal in Iran and it’s free. Perfect!
Once I set up my tent I went to grab something to eat. I had the most delicious fish in one of the bars near the beach, stretched my legs and contemplated how much I was going to miss this place…
So long Iran
I exited Iran via Astara. There was a little bureaucracy involved as expected but everyone at the border crossing was very helpful and all the officers were very interested in how I liked Iran and did I have a pleasant stay. My answer is always the same when I’m asked this question: “I loved Iran, it’s one of the best countries I’ve been to” …cause there is no other country on earth like Iran!
Duration: 19 days (19th August – 8th September 2017)
Total km’s: 4171km