After returning to Tehran, we went for couchsurfing. Another great Iranian host took care of us and offered all his hospitality. This time, however, he was not a Muslim, but a Bahá’í. And so we could first learn about the “peacefulness” of the Iranian regime to religious minorities. But about how our host was tortured in the next post.
We had a dinner, played games with friends, and began to figure out what to do in the remaining days. After our arrival in Iran, we have thoroughly enjoyed the Tehran smog, so we were for some nature, and I was curious about the Caspian Sea. So we chose to visit Chalus, where many Tehran holidaymakers go on weekends and holidays.
Double disappointment in Chalus
The next morning we went to the nearby Western Bus Terminal and looked for savari – a shared taxi – to Chalus. The departure was right after filling the car, as we used to be for it in Georgia.
The journey to two hundred miles away Chalus leads through epic scenery through the Alborz Mountains and lasts for about four hours.
In Chalus, we found ourselves somewhere in the middle of the city and tried to find a wi-fi to check if someone from the local couchsurfers replied, even we contacted them last minute. However, no public wi-fi was anywhere, and hard-won hacking skills like typing password 12345678 were useless. We went to a local pizzeria where they did not have a wi-fi but had a menu in Persian. With gestures, I explained that I want any pizza, but without mushrooms. Mushrooms and raisins are my greatest enemies in the food kingdom. Succeeded. And after a while comes the first disappointment of the day – pizza with mushrooms. Mamnoon.
We managed to get the internet in a cafe where we went only to ask them if they have wi-fi. None of the couchsurfers replied, and we couldn’t find a hostel mentioned by Lonely Planet. So we decided to check out the coast in the hope that we might choose some hotel there. We couldn’t get rid of a taxi driver who brought us there as we couldn’t get rid of the disappointment number two – a dirty and boring beach. We quickly pulled out from the original plan to spend there the two days and started looking for another savari to Rasht.
Don’t go to Iran without cash
Finding accommodation in Rasht was easier than in Chalus. We could have even chosen. In the first one, they didn’t have internet and shower wasn’t included in the price. And that would be a disaster to pay a few extra cents for the shower! In the second one, a sign was saying “wifa”, which was promising. From sleeping on the floor, we got to sleeping in beds whose mattresses were hard as the floor. We had our own shower, but one had to almost stand by his foot in the toilet to fit into that room.
Two days before the end of our stay, we started to run out of rials, so we had to exchange more. During the evening walk through the city, we tried to find an exchange, but they were already closed. And the next day was a holiday. As a foreigner you won’t withdraw from ATM, so you have to bring all the cash with you and hope it’ll be enough. On the street, somebody advised us to try some hotel reception. We were able to find one after a while, a gentleman at the reception called someone and told us to wait. But of course, we didn’t have the money with us, so we had to rush back to the hostel across the square where the Ashura celebrations were happening, the terrible “Husayn music” was torturing your ears and its only purpose had to be to break windows within a radius of ten kilometers. Eventually, we managed to exchange the money for a normal exchange rate.
What a pity we killed a lot of time in Chalus, Rasht is a nice city and worth a visit.
Masuleh – a village with rooftops instead of sidewalks
For the journey to Masuleh, we chose savari. The transfer was supposed to be in Fuman, but the driver asked us where we were going and that he will take us to Masuleh. A surprise came when paying for the ride. At first for us, then for him. Savari suddenly became a taxi with a tourist surcharge, even though we asked him about the price in Fuman. Eventually, he wanted to charge us ten times more than we would have paid for a full savari. And still much more than if we have paid for empty places. Beeing pissed, we gave him about the half – still a win-lose situation for him.
Masuleh is a photogenic mountain village with two waterfalls where the roofs of lots of houses serve as sidewalks. And we appeared here just when one of the Ashura processions took place. The vast majority of people were in black, and we could see how they were preparing for it from the roofs. As a bonus, women were walking through the aisles and were giving out biscuits. Even to us. And it was the best cookie I ever had.
After visiting the village, we moved to Fuman, the city famous for biscuits. But I didn’t find them so awesome like the one in Masuleh. Locals helped us how to get to the bus station and even escorted us and paid the tickets for us to get there. Then we spent another few hours on the bus to Tehran.
A dinner with a teacher from an underground university and the departure from Iran
From the Argentina terminal in Tehran, no taxi driver wanted to take us back to our couchsurfing host at a normal price. Suddenly a soldier helped us, stopped a passing taxi and set the price for fifteen thousand tomans, ten thousand less than the others drivers wanted. Eventually, he tried to give us five thousand, but we refused. We just wanted to pay the normal price. So the soldier gave the money to the driver and told us to not to pay him more than ten thousand. Deal. And so we met the first taxi driver in Iran who turned on a taximeter. Which, in the end, showed much more than we had agreed. But we kept our part of the deal.
I don’t remember much about our last day in Tehran. Which is strange because they sell no alcohol there. Legally. We’ve visited the Saei Park, and in the evening we went for a dinner to a professor of an underground university. Some people are denied access to higher education, mainly because of their different religion. So the solution is these forbidden “underground universities” when students meet with teachers at home.
Later, we just packed our bags, welcomed new couchsurfers, gave them some tips, and got a taxi at a normal price to the Imam Khomeini Airport to enjoy a night flight to Istanbul and some to drop the scarf off the head.
Departure to the Isfahan Bus Station was according to the classic scenario. Stop a taxi, negotiate a reasonable price and then find someone to show us where to buy a ticket and from which platform the bus departs. Almost every car can be your taxi, and it’s easier to haggle the price down than with a regular taxi driver. At the bus station, you just look confused and lost, and someone will take care of you immediately. Not sure if those people are employees destined for lost souls, or they just hound people around to fill the buses, but we have never paid more we were supposed to. Of course only if they don’t state that there is just one bus (the more expensive one) in a few hours, which happened to us in Shiraz. Then you have to ask someone else for a cheaper or an earlier one.
I was looking forward to the journey to Kashan because the road runs around the Natanz Nuclear Power Plant, where they also enrich uranium and the facility is surrounded by anti-aircraft guns. But in the end, it was nothing spectacular. At many places, there was a “wall” from piles of clay so some disobedient tourists could not take a photo and give it to the US or Israel. Or not to end at a long and unpleasant interrogation (in the better case).
The king of couchsurfing in Kashan
At the bus station in Kashan, we raised false hopes of earnings in one taxi driver, but we only needed to call to our next couchsurfer to pick up us. That couchsurfer was a local couchsurfing guru Mohammad with 500 references. He took us to his home, accommodated in their bedroom with a giant bed and fed with a great pasta. While we were drinking a few cups of tea, a driver with his little son (let’s call him Mowgli) was already waiting for us to go to the desert and the salt lake.
For the first time in our lives, we were greeted by camels in the desert, and by other dunes. Those in the Varzaneh desert were more interesting, though there should be bigger dunes behind the Maranjab caravanserai, which we also went to visit. Not that we knew why, but the driver brought us there enthusiastically. It should serve as an accommodation, but it was all unfinished and the only people there were workers. For just a short visit and tea, we were punished by paying about 10,000 tomans.
In particular, I wanted to make it to the Namak salt lake for the sunset, which is not far, but the sun was already damn low. Luckily, we made it and did not forget to taste the ground to check if it is salty. Although we had the opportunity to spend as much time as we wanted to in the desert, Mowgli was already tired, so we did not wait for the starry sky and headed back to Kashan.
The journey from the salt lake lasted well over an hour. The last stop was at Mohammed Helal mosque in the nearby town of Aran va Bigdol, where we ate a melon and saw graves next to the mosque for the first time. They consisted only of tiles with the name of the person, and everybody could walk on them.
Back at home we had a dinner (maybe I should have written the names of meals because I do not remember any except for kebab) and watched news that informed about the events in the world in the same way like western media inform about the Middle East.
Over the roofs of a bazaar
We spent only one night in Kashan and the next day Mohammad took us to the Underground City of Nushabad. It was not opened yet so we went to a nearby 800 years old fort where you can climb to its walls and towers.
We entered the underground city without a guide, so Mohammad told us about the giant well we could step in, and then we could get lost in the tunnels and chambers on our own. But actually, there are not so many options to get lost since only a small part is open to the public. After a while, other tourists with a guide appeared, so we followed them and learned how this city worked and why. It served to the inhabitants to hide in the time of being attacked, and because of many shelters, they could easily ambush and kill the intruders. It was possible to live underground for many days.
The last stop was the Agha Bozorg mosque, which serves as a theological school with a library.
After that, we said goodbye with Mohammad and left to the local bazaar, where we were advised to climb on its roof. After a while of crawling, we arrived at a fountain and asked the nearby merchants if they would give us directions to the roof. They asked about 10,000 tomans for that, but we managed to haggle it down to 4,000. But if you can find your way up there, you probably do not have to pay to anyone. The view and the mud roof absolutely worth it. You can climb wherever you want, like to the very top of the dome under which the fountain is located. Besides, there are steps, so why not. After a while at the top of the dome, a man, probably a guide because he was with tourists, called on Kačka to go down and something about the police. I guess he was just envious because he was with his tourists just on the boring roof of some house.
Our visit to Kashan came to an end and we were waiting for a bus back to Tehran, where we arranged couchsurfing near the Azadi Tower this time.
In Shiraz, we were already expected by our first Iranian couchsurfer. We weren’t able to contact him about our exact time of arrival, so he had to wait for us a little bit longer. You won’t find WiFi on board although the VIP buses have WiFi logo. It is so because they are imported from Europe and they are used. We’ve visited the Bagh-e Eram Garden, the Hafez Tomb, the Shah Cheragh Mosque and the Karim Khan Citadel. Except for the mosque, we paid the entrance fee everywhere, which is at least for one zero higher for tourists. At the Shah Cheragh Mosque, as foreigners, we were provided by a free and obligatory guide. She was very nice and told us a lot about the place and allowed us to take photos with our big cameras. The Karim Khan Citadel, which formerly served as the seat of the ruler and later as a prison, wasn’t worth the money. For us, it would be sufficient to see it just from the outside. We also tried the traditional frozen delicacy called faloodeh, which is frozen noodles with lemon syrup and rosewater. The taste didn’t get us.
We finished the day somewhere on the outskirts of Shiraz in a hidden teahouse with a hookah, kebab, and tea, and then we moved to the south for about 80 kilometers to the Zanjiran village. Our couchsurfer has his house there. We spent the evening playing cards and talking about our lives and our religion. Simplified about why we are atheists and why they believe and what it means for their lives.
The following day we went back to Shiraz for lunch where I enjoyed lamb meat probably for the first time and also for the last time in a kebab form. Our idea to spend another night with another couchsurfer, so we get to know more people, wasn’t so good. He lives in a small district in the suburbs of Shiraz, where our previous couchsurfer took us. The new one was like Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. But not funny. First, he insisted that we should go on a city tour back to Shiraz, but we already saw the city and didn’t want to go back again. Another option was to visit Persepolis, but our plan was to go there the next day. The last rescue option was to go to the “mountains” next to the city, and we greatly appreciate it. The problem was that in the end, our couchsurfer didn’t welcome this idea and in the middle of the hill he said he is tired and wants to go home. We spent the rest of the day with him in his small room and tried to keep the conversation while checking his collection of coins and paper cups (in Iran they have at least nice design). Several times we were asked if we want to go to the shower (we didn’t stink), and when we will finally take a shower. The situation was saved for a while thanks to a dinner – some rice with legumes which was very good and tasty, and I would eat it all if I didn’t feel stupid for it.
On the last day in Shiraz, we originally wanted to visit the famous ruins of the ancient city of Persepolis and then head to Yazd. In the end, we weren’t so much into it, and we would have to go back to Shiraz from Persepolis to catch the bus to Yazd according to our couchsurfer. We didn’t want to spend our time by going there and back again and again, so we were just accompanied to the bus terminal in Shiraz. The farewell with the couchsurfer deserved a big high five, and before noon, we were on the bus to experience another endless journey through the Iranian desert to Yazd.
The desert city of Yazd
We arrived at the bus terminal in Yazd, located on the edge of the city, after dusk. Right after getting off the bus we were surrounded by taxi drivers offering us a ride. I immediately refused the first offer of one driver and suggested much lower and more realistic price. He accepted without any resistance. No fun with this guy. For accommodation we chose the Kooshk-e Now district near the main mosque (the name Jame Mosque means that it’s the main mosque in the city, so it’s not named after some James or jam; you will find mosques with this name in several cities), where the most tourists accommodate. The driver brought us to the Oasis hostel through old narrow streets, led us inside, and left back to his old car without asking for the money. Kačka has probably begun to enjoy the free ride, but I stopped him and paid the agreed price. Karma, right?
We found the Oasis hostel expensive, so we tried other hostels in the area and ended up at the Dalan-e behesht hotel, where they offer shared room in the basement for $10 per person. And men and women can be there together! Don’t tell the ayatollah. Besides us, only two or three Asians were accommodated in that room. The price included unlimited access to tea and breakfast with a good selection. Just the internet connection sucked. For this, we had to ask at a reception for login information. And the connection with one specific credential was restricted to a specific (and very small) amount of data, so it did not last and we were at the reception again. And again. Later we found out how the system works, so sometimes we managed to use older credentials with the reseted data limit, sometimes we guessed another credentials.
The desert city of Yazd is the city I liked the most, especially our district. Narrow alleys with walls of mud were perfect for wandering to unknown and interesting places and windcatchers, known as badgir (serving for cooling the air inside a building instead of air conditioning), create a great atmosphere. Yazd was also the first place where we encountered tourists at every step, and we didn’t feel like in country nobody wants to travel to. During the day we visited the main mosque, the Clock Tower,bazaar, Amir Chakhmaq Mosque and Square, and a tourist library where you can go on the roof for admission. Luckily we managed to get on the roof for free at the Irani Cafe next to the main mosque.
In the evening we took a taxi and went to watch the sunset to Zoroastrians’ Towers of Silence. A taxi driver wanted to wait for us and to take us back because it would be difficult to grab a taxi there. Yeah, we know these tricks. As usual, we paid the tourist fee and found ourselves in front of two hills on which the Towers of Silence – the dakhmas – are built. Below the hills, there are several ancient Zoroastrians’ buildings, an underground water tank, and their present cemetery. For the sunset, we chose the tower on the left and higher hill. These towers were used by Zoroastrians to bury dead bodies that were eaten by birds, leaving only bones. In Iran, however, this burying was banned at the beginning of the second half of the 20th century. The sun slowly drowned in a sandy cloud, and we went back. Well, the taxi driver was right, there was no free car, and we weren’t able to leave with other tourists. So our first Iranian hitchhiking took place there. It took a while, but eventually we stopped a young student girl (what a surprise, we weren’t picked up by a girl in Georgia or Armenia), and within a second a taxi stopped behind her. She was listening to Persian hip hop and didn’t care about her falling hijab. She spoke English just a little bit so that we couldn’t chat a lot, and drove us to the Amir Chakhmaq Square where the fountain is color lightened in the evening.
For the first time in a desert
We left Yazd the next morning and headed by bus to the small desert village Toodeshk. We were surprised by the police checkpoint before reaching the city Naein. Everybody had to leave the bus which was searched by dogs. Some young Iranian girl was unlucky because they had found something in her bag, but then she continued with us. The bus driver wasn’t happy about it and gave her some lesson. I guess. We arrived at Toodeshk around noon, and while walking to our place I had to take a selfie with one local. In a moment I was sitting at our guesthouse, eating lunch together with other young foreigners.
The place we were accommodated in is called Tak Taku Guesthouse, and it was founded by Mohammad Jalali, mainly because of cyclists who often rode through this village. He had been meeting cyclist there already as a child and was giving them something good to eat. He claimed that today not so many cyclists pass this route, but it seems that tourists use his guesthouse frequently. We gathered there in more than ten people. Everything is like new in his guesthouse, and it was probably the best accommodation we’ve had in Iran. There are available trips to the Varzaneh desert, where you can also sleep in tents, or farther to the Salt Lake. We chose the sunset without sleeping in the dunes of the Varzaneh desert. Probably one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen.
Isfahan – the city of bridges
In Toodeshk we spent only one night and the next day we continued to Isfahan, where we again arranged couchsurfing. Sometimes it’s difficult without the internet, so even we got to his address, we weren’t able to reach him through the old good doorbell. So we went to look for public wifi. Along the way, we wanted to visit the main mosque of Isfahan, but the tourist entrance stopped us. We were able to find the wifi at the Naqsh-e Jahan Square, also known as the Imam Square, which should be one of the largest squares in the world. After contacting our host, we found out that we originally chose the wrong door, because he was at home. It must also be noted that this was our first couchsurfing we paid for, which is against the rules and spirit of Couchsurfing. But we didn’t get any other offer and didn’t want to look for a hotel or guesthouse. But after more than a week we could finally wash our clothes! A valuable tip from our host was that the main mosque has free entrance during evening prayers, so we visited it that day again.
The second day we walked through a dry Zayande riverbed and admired bridges. On the banks, there are green parks and gardens, where you can hide from the sun, or to refill drinking water. Which is great about Iran – you can find drinking fountains at many places. The most impressive and most famous bridge is probably the Khajoo Bridge, which serves not only as a little “dam” but also as a place for picnics, reading of Hafez’s poems, or just for chilling. Other interesting bridges are Joubi and Si-o-seh also known as the bridge of thirty-three spans. Next stop was again the Imam Square where we wanted to go to some teahouse and smoke hookah. We also wanted to stop by at the Chehel Sotoun Palace, but somehow we missed the right entrance and headed to a government building, so soldiers didn’t let us in. Searching for a teahouse around the square was endless, and our Lonely Planet guide was outdated. On the square, we’ve visited the Ali Qapu Palace where after paying the entrance fee a miss offered us an audio guide and couldn’t understand we don’t want to pay for it another amount. Thanks to the tourist entrance fees we also skipped the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque.
We sadly said goodbye to a non-existent hookah and rather enjoyed free teas thanks to the religious feast of Ashura which accompanied us for the rest of our stay in Iran (I still don’t understand what’s the timetable because the Ashura lasts only for one day). And after returning to our couchsurfing host, we also got hookah because he was celebrating his birthday with friends. It was also our last evening in Isfahan and the next day we went to another desert town – Kashan.
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During summer 2015 in Georgia, we knew that we want to visit Iran. Everywhere present road signs to Tehran were provoking, but the trip wouldn’t worth it for 4 days at max. Well, last autumn we wanted to go back to Georgia for at least a week, but Kačka said nooo because she couldn’t afford to leave university for one week. So I suggested Iran for two weeks, and suddenly we had flight tickets for the end of September in the mail.
We didn’t look forward to Iran
You want to visit Iran for several years, you’re looking forward to it and then.. Then you return after almost a month from South Africa, Thailand, Ethiopia, and Italy, you have a break at home for five days, and suddenly you’d like to rest from traveling at least twice longer. And both of you has the same problem. Well, what could we do, nobody else would do it instead of us. Moreover, we had absolutely no plan where to go and what to see. On the way to Iran, we opened a few years old Lonely Planet book and chose one of the offered itineraries. As it turned out, it was probably the most common route for first visitors. We flew from Vienna with Pegasus Airlines with a change in Istanbul. It seems that arrivals and departures in the middle of the night are popular in this region. Both in Georgia and in Iran. We touched the surface of the Islamic Republic around 2 AM and headed into the maelstrom of bureaucratic absurdities.
Iranian immigration mess
We knew that there is a possibility that we won’t be able to leave the airport and we will fly back immediately. Information about getting a visa to Iran differs not only source from source, but also person from person at the airport. Perhaps it depends on your face and the mood of officials. Some were given visas for 15 days, others for a whole month. We needed the visa for 16 days. The immigration process is also complicated not only because of the “need” to pay health insurance – regardless of whether you have travel insurance from your country – but also because everyone pays a different price for visa/insurance and by the existence of mystical reference number. Don’t try to find the system in this. It seems that they’re trying to complicate it to tourists and just get money from them. This is also probably the official motto of the Iranian tourist agency, as we experienced when paying entrance fees throughout the country.
One option is to arrange your visa at the Iranian Embassy in your country. To do this, according to the available information, you must have that mystical reference number. This is the business for its sellers. I don’t know who sell it and what it should serve for. Plenty of people went to Iran without it and passed through immigration, so why to spend extra money. We chose the second option – a visa upon arrival at the international airport of Imam Khomeini. The queue at the counter was not long, but you won’t get to the counter itself. Sophisticated officials have a different system – one of them coordinates everything with every tourist, collects your passport and eventually give it back to you with visa.
In our case, it worked quite quickly and without problems. We got the visa for 30 days automatically without asking for 70 euros, and we paid 14 euros for their health insurance. After about an hour we were able to travel to Tehran by taxi because the airport is located about 50 km away and there is no public transportation.
Also in Iran you have to bargain over the price otherwise you will end nicely robbed. From our host, I knew that we shouldn’t pay more than 20 euros, so I just nodded to the very first offer at the arrivals for 35 dollars without even trying to bargain. No logic here. I didn’t get rid of comments about this till the end of the trip.
Tehran didn’t catch our attention
We dedicated first three days for Tehran for the cultural acclimatization. We found our accommodation on Homestay at a young married couple in the Sadeghiyeh district. The first day we used to get familiar with the metro, local glances, marketplace, and Golestan Palace. The price for a metro ticket we knew from the internet was probably outdated so at a desk they didn’t get why we are trying to pay less, and we didn’t understand what they want from us. But we always got a ticket – seems it didn’t matter on the price. Another surprise for us was how big surprise we were for the locals. Not that we were the first foreigners who were spotted in Persia. Those glances were incomparable with the ones from Southeast Asia I already know – people here are staring at you. Without a single blink. It certainly weren’t hostile glances, but it took a few days to get used to it. They also often approached us (well, more me, but on that another time) and asked us where we are from. Some of them were satisfied with the small talk, others wanted to talk in English more, others willingly advised what to do.
Losing in the famous Grand Bazaar was interesting and photogenic, but if you don’t want to buy shoes, carpet, clothes, jewelry, shoes, and carpets you probably won’t buy anything. Oh, did I mention carpets and shoes? Each aisle offers mostly one type of goods, but we didn’t find food aisle.
It took us while to find the entrance to the Golestan Palace. Admission is paid by the exhibitions you want to see. Together with the base admission, we chose only the Mirror Hall and then we tried to get into another room, but tickets are checked carefully. Buying entrance for all exhibitions (or for boredom if you want) would be a waste of money. When walking in the park, we were stopped by the old man with the question if we are from Germany. I asked him why Germany and he said he is looking for someone to explain some things in German. And because Kačka spricht sehr gut, the Iranian gentleman got a German lesson from the Czech girl in English.
The second day we wanted to visit 3964 meters high mountain Tochal, which is located north of the city. At the same time, we wanted to get some sleep that morning. Which, as we discovered later, excluded the visit of Tochal. Traveling through the entire city by metro, then bargain a good price with a taxi driver and finally walking to the first station lasted for so long, that after our arrival we learned we came too late to get to the top of the mountain. Thanks to this the world reminded how small it is because we met Kačka’s friends who were also traveling in Iran that time.
The last day in Tehran we caught up the rest of the “must see” places – Azadi Tower and the former US Embassy. It was in reconstruction around the Azadi Tower, local grass police patrolled so nobody enters the pitch and I finally became a celebrity when locals wanted pictures with me. Then we moved by metro to the Taleghan stop which is next to the former US Embassy. To take pictures, or not? I read a recommendation to ask the security first. Luckily, no security at that time so we could photograph the graffiti without any restriction. But we also lost the opportunity to ask them if we can visit the complex because it’s impossible to take a look because of the wall.
Tehran wasn’t special for us. Millions of people, heavy traffic, and smog. We were looking forward to a trip to Shiraz in the south. We chose about 14 hours long ride by a comfortable VIP night bus for $ 20. VIP means that the bus has 2+1 seat configuration with plenty of legroom and proper reclining seats. The ticket also includes refreshments – water, juice, biscuits and some chemical cake. Take your insulin.
In the next post, we will have a look at first couchsurfing experience in Shiraz, and we will visit the desert city and the desert itself.
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