The beating heart of the ancient Silk Road (Iran part 2)

The beating heart of the ancient Silk Road (Iran part 2)

We continue our journey through Iran and have now arrived about halfway across the country. Isfahan is an oasis in the desert and, with 1.8 million inhabitants, the third largest city in Iran. The city lies on the ancient Silk Road and used to be called “half the world”. If you had seen Isfahan, you had seen half the world due to the arrival of its many peoples, including Jews, Armenians and Persians.

We bike through the city, which is a little less crowded and chaotic than Tehran, but it is still challenging. We stay with Reza and his parents. We got to them through Warmshowers, and the mother welcomes us with a cup of tea. As we later walk toward the center, people constantly greet us with “Welcome to Isfahan” and Audrey is constantly stared at by other women, without embarrassment and from head to toe. A little uncomfortable that is.

In the bazaar, one vendor after another tries to sell us a Persian rug and lure us inside. When we tell them we are traveling by bicycle, they somewhat understand that a carpet is not practical. But we can always send it along, they suggest in a final effort. When we set foot on Nasqsh-e Jahan Square, we understand that it is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It is the 6th largest square in the world and it is simply gigantic! At the square, we also visit the Masjed-e Jāmé, or Friday Mosque. It is a particularly large building with beautifully colored tiles.

It is so hot that we decide to cross the city through the covered bazaar, which is miles long. As the sun sets and the temperature becomes more pleasant, we suddenly find ourselves walking down the ‘vacuum cleaner street’. A street where, again, for miles, store after store, old vacuum cleaners are displayed. Some are wrapped in plastic to keep them looking somewhat new. From vacuum cleaners it spills over to car radios, fans, hand blenders and again hundreds of vacuum cleaners. We constantly ask ourselves how people can make a living from this. And who is buying anything here? After all, we only see people using homemade brooms. So many questions arise at the sight of these vacuum cleaners….

When we get back to Reza, he invites us to go hiking at Soffeh Mountain in the evening. The park at the foot of the mountain is a well-known entertainment spot for families and it is very busy this late at night. Everywhere we see children running around, families picnicking and drinking tea. Several times we are addressed by strangers with “hello”, “how are you?” Reza indicates that if the police ask anything, we should say that we have come across him and he is guiding us, as taking foreign tourists into our homes is forbidden in Iran. So using Warmshowers and Couchsurfing is not allowed, but many do it anyway. We climb up, Eloy again overcomes his fear of heights and at the top there is a beautiful view of the illuminated city. When we reach the top, Reza tells us that people regularly crash on the mountain…. Okay, now back down again! On the way back down, some interesting conversations follow about how the Iranian government oppresses the people and deliberately locks them up and isolates them from the rest of the world. But with the advent of the Internet and social media, young people in Iran are also more aware of what is happening outside of Iran and the opportunities they are missing out on at home. So the fact that barely a month later (and at the time of writing this blog) there are hefty protests going on in the country is actually not a big surprise either. More than once we notice the frustration among the younger population; there are even mentions that a revolution cannot be long in coming. Iran has an incredibly young population that is fed up with oppression. The world sees Iran and Iran sees the world. Shivers run down our spines and our thoughts are with our Iranian friends who are among the most helpful and hospitable people in the world.

The next day we decide to visit Abbas and his family in Isfahan. We met him earlier in Tehran, while waiting for the bus, and he invited us to his home then. Dolenthoused he is when he hears that we are nearby and can come by. First, we drive a scenic route through Isfahan and pass some unusual obstacles. We also drive over the famous Khaju bridge. It is said to be one of the most extraordinary bridges in the world. The upper part used to be used for pedestrians and horse carts. The pavilions in the middle were art galleries or teahouses and the lowest level was used by pedestrians or for resting. The bridge also served as a dam, but unfortunately the river has now completely dried up. In recent years, there has been a serious water crisis and residents have had to say goodbye to their beloved river through the city.

Abbas is a teacher and also sells saffron, for which Iran and especially Isfahan is well known. We are told that everything yellow in Iran contains saffron. It is put into drinks and sweets and mixed with rice and sugar. Abbas’ younger brother is studying for the entrance exam for the School of Medicine, so he has many questions for Audrey. We are told to be at ease. The headscarf can be taken off, long sleeves are not necessary, and when Audrey asks if she can help prepare the food we are told that we are guests and so that is not the intention. Photo albums are brought out and even the film of the wedding of one of the brothers is shown. We are taken into Iranian traditions and a tear is also shed by the mother of the family upon seeing the film. “He was a good man”. The father, in his 50s, died less than a year ago as a result of Covid-19. A large photograph hangs on the wall and an obituary hangs on the gate of the house. They indicate that they did not have access to the vaccines until very late. Iran was one of the heaviest and first affected countries worldwide. The economy was collapsing, vaccine imports were very limited, and the government decided too quickly to restart businesses because of the country’s already dramatic economic situation.

We are not visiting a landmark for a while, but we are the landmark! The upstairs neighbors come to see us, want to have a chat and invite us to their place. A little later Abbas picks us up again and we go on an evening picnic with the whole family and entourage. We eat sunflower seeds, chocolate cake, fruit and other delicacies and talk about the differences in our lifestyles and cultures. They ask if we can stay another day, and Abbas takes us to a traditional house nearby. He forbids us as guests to pay the entrance fee, as he does. And before we leave, we are given saffron, an enamel plate painted by Abbas’ little brother, and food for later in the evening. Then the upstairs neighbors come running to ask us to stop by, because they have made iced coffee for us. As coffee lovers we can’t say no! When we enter, a dwarf parrot flies through the room. For a moment it dares to stand on Eloy’s hand. Once again we are engaged in conversation as the sun sets. Then, when we do attempt to leave (it is dusk by now and we prefer not to drive in the dark), Audrey receives earrings as a gift. Although we have just met the neighbors, they are so happy to see us. We are stunned.

In the dark we race through the city’s chaotic traffic. We resign ourselves to it and try to drive carefully. More than once we are stopped by curious people and windows are turned down when we are waiting at traffic lights. A motorcyclist drives past Eloy and shouts ‘Hello, how are you?’ By now we are used to the fact that they often don’t wait for the answer and usually can’t say more than these words in English. They are just happy if they can already say this, but it doesn’t stop there this time. While driving, the motorcyclist quickly gives a giant ring to Eloy and drives off again. The further we travel, the more we see and experience, the more often we also realize that we don’t actually understand the world very well.

When we are 1.5 kilometers before the bus station, Audrey gets a flat tire. It’s the back tire, on top of that. Fortunately, we left on time and continue walking to the bus station. There we turn the bike upside down and quickly figure out the hole, patch it and continue waiting for the bus. The whole scene obviously caused a lot of attention and two men lend us a hand. Because fixing a tire is not so strange, but apparently it is when it is done by tourists (and especially a woman). Around midnight the bus leaves for Yazd, because as we had written in the earlier blog, we take the bus in Iran to skip the extreme heat and the desert.

We arrive at the bus station in Yazd around 5 a.m. It is still pitch black. In the lobby of the bus station, we wait for the sun to rise and try to sleep some more. Of course, we can’t remain unseen and are soon approached by a hodgepodge of people. We also see many Pakistani people with their typical costumes. When the rising sun changes the sky into all kinds of colors we decide to get on our bikes. This early in the morning it is still fairly quiet and cool in town. Suddenly we see a large group of schoolchildren and elderly people on bicycles. We are very surprised. Later we discover that Yazd is known as the City of Bicycles because of its ancient history of cyclists and the highest number of bicycles per capita in Iran. Yazd is different from other major cities in Iran. It is surrounded by the hottest deserts in the world, the climate is hot and dry, the houses and buildings are adapted to this, which is why it is now on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Many houses are built of clay and straw. A few weeks ago there was unprecedented rain and the city turned into a huge mudslide in half an hour(!) resulting in the destruction of many historic houses. Another visible effect of climate change.

We stay and sleep in the living room of Mohammad and his family. His daughter Anita is 10 years old, but is already mature in many ways. She loves painting nails (and thus asks if she can paint Audrey’s), playing games, drawing and taking pictures of her family. Astrology is one of her favorite subjects in school. It is a pleasure to get to know her and she speaks incredibly good English, which allows us to communicate well with her. Her little brother Sepanta also regularly says “You want to play games? Let’s go!” and has energy for ten.

Together we visit a Tower of Silence. It is a tower built by the Zoroastrians and they placed the bodies of their deceased there. They believed that earth, fire and water are sacred elements and so you should not pollute them by burying or burning bodies. To avoid contaminating the ground, they placed the bodies on the tower. Wild animals and birds ate the flesh. Once the bones were bleached by the sun and wind, which could take up to a year, they were collected in a central pit in the center of the tower, where they gradually disintegrated and the remains seeped through several coal and sand filters before finally being washed out. When we first heard the story, it seemed like a rather sinister place. But actually it’s a fascinating story about the rituals of death, very different from our own. The towers are no longer in use, the last known use dating back to the 1960s.

In the evening, we treat the family to dinner at one of their favorite restaurants. We sit on the roof terrace and enjoy the ambiance and the view of Yazd. We are all exhausted and fall asleep at home on the count of three. The next day, on Mohammad’s recommendation, we visit a very special gym. Here the Iranian sport Zurkhaneh is practiced. These are rhythmic gymnastic exercises accompanied by a drum. The movements have a symbolic meaning and various attributes are used: wooden clubs of 10-30 kg, shields, bow-formed iron weights and push-up benches. A traditional sport practiced in an old well. It was in danger of being lost but is kept alive by a select group of athletes and the younger generation is also participating again.

Here are some more pictures of special places in Yazd. In any case, we think it is one of the most special cities in Iran that left a great impression on us. The architecture is different, the heat is unbearable during the afternoon (so the streets run empty), and you feel that the desert is just around the corner. In the neighboring Dasht-le Lut desert, the highest ground temperature on Earth was measured by NASA, 70°C. Almost unimaginable.

We again take the night bus to Shiraz, as temperatures continue to exceed 40 °C (104 °F). Upon arrival, the bikes are almost thrown out and the bus moves on. A group of 20 cab drivers immediately stand around the bikes. They ask questions, look in amazement at the drive belt and all the flags. Then Saeid walks up to us. He tells us he is a sports teacher and an enthusiastic cyclist; he has also made several short trips by bicycle. He is curious and immediately indicates that we can rest in his house and also invites us to cycle around town with his cycling club in the evening. We exchange contact information and then leave for our sleeping address. When we arrive, there appear to be other guests there: Lenie (Audrey knows her through Medicine for the People) and Thomas! How coincidental is that! We had already met them in Istanbul, met them again later in the Ihlara Valley in Turkey and now here.

We leave with our bikes to the center and go touring with Saeid’s bike club. It’s crazy cycling without luggage, we’re not used to that. The handlebars feel (contrary to what you might expect) very unstable without all that weight, but it rides like crazy! As we pause, more and more club members join us. Other cycling clubs come by too and they don’t go home without a picture with us…. An hour and a half and 200 photos later, by now it is dusk and we head with our group to a place to get a bite to eat. We cross major roads with the leader blowing her whistle and directing traffic. As if to throw herself to the lions. It remains an extremely risky operation to cycle in this chaotic city. Arriving at a nice restaurant around 9 p.m., we order a local dish on the waiter’s recommendation.

Once outside, we have to bike quite a bit back to our sleeping address. According to the bicycle club, it is too dangerous to cycle in the dark. A little strange considering they themselves do the same thing, but they suggest getting a trailer and driving us home. When we say that this is really not necessary, two of them insist on accompanying us since they have to go in the same direction. We agree, and once home we thank them for the ride. At night, it is easier to cycle when someone who is familiar with the neighborhood and speaks the language rides next to you.

At home, together with Lenie and Thomas, we decide to go to Persepolis the following day. A special place in Iran and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Persepolis was founded in 518 BC and was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire. A retired man will take us with his car. He doesn’t speak English, but with gestures we get by quite a bit. Upon arrival, it appears that we will be given a tour by two of the archaeological curators! How and why we do not know exactly, but they like it and tell us that there is still a lot to dig up. As we walk through the ruins, a man asks Eloy if he would like to participate in an interview for Iranian television. Somewhat doubtful of the intentions, Eloy says he agrees, but to look around a bit first. Nervous about the questions and what to expect, he tells the rest of the group and we all laugh about the situation we have now found ourselves in yet again.

With the sun in his eyes, Eloy looks into the camera with one eye and talks about his experiences in Iran, the bike ride and the differences between the Netherlands and Iran. Lenie and Thomas are also featured. Then the curator offers to take us to another ruin. The camera crew takes some more shots and we leave again. The curator rides with us to Naqsh-e Rustam, an archaeological site where four Achaemenid princes are buried. Looking at the height of the tombs, the curator indicates she has a surprise. She gives us a look behind the scenes: we are allowed to go up the scaffolding with her to look inside the tomb, where excavations are currently taking place. Once again, Eloy overcomes his fear of heights on the wobbly steps, but doesn’t say anything.

The last day we visit Saeid, our friend from the cycling club. He would like to show us around the center and, of course, we have to stay overnight. In the center we meet his sister who knows a lot about the city’s history and is an English teacher. As we walk into the citadel we are approached by a young man who speaks English and is just about to start a tour for his relatives. He is all too eager for us to join them and once again invites us to his home.

The following day, Saeid’s nephew, Omid, proposes to take us to the remaining highlights. We visit the famous Nasir al Molkmosque, where light is conjured in all colors through the colored windows. The Vakilbazaar with the Vakil Mosque and Shah Cheragh mausoleum. The latter place is the city’s main pilgrimage site. And the inside is completely covered with thousands of tiny mirrors. Audrey should wear a Chador (kind of wide pajamas where only the face is uncovered) over the headscarf.

We go together to the Eram Botanical Garden (it too is a UNESCO World Heritage Site) where he likes to unwind. We understand once we arrive, it is beautiful there. He lets us taste a local dessert, faloodeh. An ice cream consisting of a kind of thin vermicelli noodles made of starch in a half-frozen syrup with sugar, rose water and, in our case, lime juice. It looks a little strange and is like eating frozen sprinkles. But it tastes delicious, especially in the heat of Iran. Then we go to a coffee shop and Omid tells us that he is doing all kinds of jobs to save money. In fact, he wants to avoid military service at all costs, but that comes at a very high price. He would prefer to be a sports teacher like his uncle, but now he is an online broker and also cuts family and friends as a hairdresser. He looks at Eloy’s feral beard, but says nothing. Then Eloy laughingly indicates that he could use a haircut, and that evening Eloy gets his beard done. The whole family sits there and smiles. We eat a delicious supper and now Audrey is being interviewed in videos on a variety of topics in English. Saeid’s sister, who is an English teacher, would like to use them as teaching materials. Later, when we thank them and bike to the bus station, Omid is eager to ride with us. He is happy to have met us and it has inspired him to keep dreaming of traveling.

“I think it’s very good that you travel around the world and experience something new every day. It’s really interesting for me and my plan for the future is to go and see different countries, different people and different cultures on the planet. It’s beautiful and I would like to see all of them. It’s great that I met you and this means for me that I must travel to different countries. This is like a sign for me. I was very happy to meet you. I wanted to say these words to you and now I said them so that I don’t forget”.


We depart a fourth and final time by night bus, to Bandar Abbas. As soon as we get off the bus we feel the high humidity hitting our faces. It is bizarre and in a few minutes we are soaking wet with sweat. The first hotel we can find we enter. Fortunately there is air conditioning and after a big power nap we go into the center. Money can’t be changed until tomorrow, so we go get bread. However primitive some stores are, at the bakery you can only pay with Iranian debit cards. When Eloy looks up strangely, the baker shoves 2 large loaves of bread into his hands and points his face to heaven as a gesture, “Insjallah” (by God’s will).

In Bandar Abbas, it is actually too hot to explore the city; we do not move out until the evening and stay under the air conditioning for the rest of the day. The city lies on the Persian Gulf, the warmest water in the world with an average of around 30 degrees. We are shocked by the temperature when we put our feet in the water. We see camels roaming on the beach and people only come out in the evening.

We decide to take a trip to the island of Hormuz on our last day in Iran. By ferry, which looks like a can of trapped sardines, we dock. Here we are approached by tuktuk drivers who all try to lure us to take a tour with them. After some negotiations, we get into the back of the trunk with 2 wobbly benches, speakers on and the engine started. Nature on the island is enchanting. From red and silver beaches to clear blue water, rainbow-colored caves and bright yellow salt flats. The rocks have been carved by weather and wind. This small island in the Persian Gulf is so diverse in its nature that it is almost unbelievable. The red color of the sand is caused by the fact that the soil is rich of iron oxide. The red iron oxide is used for coloring food, making cosmetics, fabrics and ceramics.

This was our last day in Iran. Our trip through Iran was challenging, especially with the bikes, but we are very grateful to have seen this country with our own eyes. We experienced tremendous hospitality and met so many special and warm-hearted people every day. Often also young people, who have a whole future ahead of them, but are severely limited in their possibilities. Especially for women in Iran, the situation is distressing. The gender gap is one of the largest in the world: in 2022, Iran is ranked 143 out of 146 countries. Women have almost no rights, and these are actually deteriorating year after year, but they are remarkably active in all kinds of sectors. Some limitations:

  • Women are not allowed to travel or leave the country without their husband’s permission
  • Women are not allowed to ride bicycles (but it is done anyway)
  • Women are not allowed to watch men’s sports games
  • If a woman wants a divorce, it is questionable whether it will be granted and the children are usually assigned to the father
  • Women are not allowed to dance or sing in public
  • Women must follow strict dress codes

What we also heard (when there were no protests): tell and share our story. Now, at the time of the protests, we get messages from the people we met: “The situation in Iran is not good, unfortunately, there is too much violence against the people, too much shooting in the streets” and “Be our voice, please!”.

The protests are still going on, even if the media coverage the West is getting now is much less. Innocent people continue to be killed and imprisoned daily. If you would like to sign an Amnesty International petition, you can do so here:

Thank you! 

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