Culture shock in Iran

Posted on 2019-05-14

Entering Isfahan, the first thing that struck us was the lush greenery everywhere. Blessed with the Zayandeh River that flows through the city, the city is full of gardens and tree-lined streets, a pleasant respite from the heat of the desert that we had been cycling through since leaving Tehran. At the heart of the city is the Naqsh-e Jahan square, one of the largest squares in the world, flanked by several beautiful mosques and palaces that Isfahan is famous for. Visiting on a Friday, the square was bustling with activity, with people picnicking, cycling, riding horse carriages, or just strolling around. Isfahan is indeed quite the cycling city, and during our short stay, we saw more women cycling there than anywhere else in Iran.

View of the Naqsh-e Jahan Square from the Ali Qapu Palace in Isfahan, with the entrance to the Bazaar on the left, the Lotfollah Mosque directly across, and the Shah Mosque on the right

View of the Naqsh-e Jahan Square from the Ali Qapu Palace in Isfahan, with the entrance to the Bazaar on the left, the Lotfollah Mosque directly across, and the Shah Mosque on the right

Cycling past the Khaju Bridge again on our way out of Isfahan

Cycling past the Khaju Bridge again on our way out of Isfahan

From Isfahan, we followed the Zayandeh River out of the city towards Varzaneh. At the outskirts of Isfahan, we passed by a nuclear site, and around there was the only time the police stopped us to check our passports and visas. That night, we camped next to several pigeon towers near the town of Ezhieh. These towers were built to house pigeons in order to collect their droppings, that farmers used to fertilise their land. The pigeon towers here are no longer in use, and some are partly ruined, though at least one has been restored and converted into a teahouse.

Camping in between the pigeon towers in Ezhieh town, between Isfahan and Varzaneh

Camping in between the pigeon towers in Ezhieh town, between Isfahan and Varzaneh

Still on the way to Varzaneh, we took a small detour to the Ghoortan Citadel. The over-1000-year-old citadel is packed with adobe houses, some of which are still in use and even lived in. At the citadel, we met a young man named Saleh, who invited us to his home for tea and said that he had the key to the pigeon tower next to the citadel. Curious to see the inside of a pigeon tower, we agreed, and he contacted the farmers who could open the tower for us. It turned out that this pigeon tower was still in use, and it was full of pigeons (and pigeon poop)!

Inside the 1000-year-old Ghoortan Citadel, between Isfahan and Varzaneh

Inside the 1000-year-old Ghoortan Citadel, between Isfahan and Varzaneh

Inside a pigeon tower in Ghoortan village, between Isfahan and Varzaneh. This pigeon tower is still maintained by farmers (one of them opened it for us) and there are still pigeons living inside, and the ground is full of poop!

Inside a pigeon tower in Ghoortan village, between Isfahan and Varzaneh. This pigeon tower is still maintained by farmers (one of them opened it for us) and there are still pigeons living inside, and the ground is full of poop!

After having lunch with Saleh's entire extended family, he offered to cycle with us all the way to Varzaneh (about 12km away) and show us some of the interesting places there. We agreed again, and he took us to see a camel-mill and an ox-well, both old technologies that have been revived by some enterprising local people for touristic purposes, but were nevertheless interesting to see.

Saleh (sitting next to Heiko) found us at the Ghoortan Citadel and invited us to have lunch with his family. He also took us to the pigeon tower, and then even cycled with us all the way to Varzaneh and showed us some of the interesting sights there.

Saleh (sitting next to Heiko) found us at the Ghoortan Citadel and invited us to have lunch with his family. He also took us to the pigeon tower, and then even cycled with us all the way to Varzaneh and showed us some of the interesting sights there.

Camel-mill in Varzaneh, and old system of grinding wheat, now used mostly for touristic purposes

Camel-mill in Varzaneh, and old system of grinding wheat, now used mostly for touristic purposes

Most travellers to Varzaneh take tours to the nearby sand dunes and salt lake, but having already seen the same near Kashan, we skipped these sights and headed straight out of town the next day. Our destination was the Khargooshi Caravanserai, an abandoned caravanserai in the middle of the desert between Varzaneh and Nodoushan. On the way, we passed by the Ghavkhouni Wetland (yes, in the middle of the desert), a Ramsar-listed wetland that used to be full of migratory birds, but has unfortunately dried up over the last few years because of drought and water mismanagement.

The long and straight road through the desert between Varzaneh and Nodoushan. The mountains in the distance are about 20km away.

The long and straight road through the desert between Varzaneh and Nodoushan. The mountains in the distance are about 20km away.

4km before the Khargooshi Caravanserai, the nice, straight, asphalt road we had been cycling on ended abruptly, and turned into a sandy dirt road. We pushed on (sometimes literally) to reach the caravanserai, where we planned to camp the night. We spent some time exploring the large caravanserai, imagining what it was like during its heyday, when caravans travelling along the silk road would stop here to rest. In the evening, two cars with local people also stopped by to explore the place, and one man came to fill his water truck from the spring in the middle - a surprising amount of traffic for an abandoned place. Thankfully, we were undisturbed for the rest of the night.

Khargooshi Caravanserai, an abandoned caravanserai where we camped for a night in between Varzaneh and Nodoushan

Khargooshi Caravanserai, an abandoned caravanserai where we camped for a night in between Varzaneh and Nodoushan

The next day, it was another 4km of sandy dirt road, followed by 16km of good dirt road, before we hit the asphalt again close to a large iron mine. From there, it was more long, straight roads through the desert to Nodoushan. With the exception of the caravanserai, there was absolutely no shade between Varzaneh and Nodoushan. The weather was quite hot, and over the 2 days, we used up all of the 9.5l of water that we could fit on our bicycles (which, on hindsight, was not all that much).

The last stretch of dirt road on the way to Nodoushan

The last stretch of dirt road on the way to Nodoushan

Nodoushan is a traditional desert town that claims to be the geographical centre of Iran. We knew nothing about the town before arriving, and were pleasantly surprised by the beautiful adobe buildings and windcatchers clustered in the old town. That night, we stayed in the only guesthouse in town, a beautifully restored, cosy traditional house that we had all to ourselves.

Street in Nodoushan, a traditional desert town in the geographical centre of Iran

Street in Nodoushan, a traditional desert town in the geographical centre of Iran

From Nodoushan, it was mostly downhill to Yazd, the largest and most famous desert city of Iran. Again, there was no shade to be found, and we resorted to taking our breaks in the drainage tunnels below the road, both to hide from the sun as well as the traffic and people. Of course, Iranians being very sociable, someone found us even down there. By this time, Heiko was having a nervous breakdown from overinteraction, and was cycling with earplugs on to reduce the intensity of the blaring truck horns.

By this time we reached Yazd, we had already seen so many traditional desert towns that the city did not impress us so much anymore. What interested us more in Yazd was learning about Zoroastrianism, the main religion in Iran before the Arab invasion, as Yazd is the centre of Zoroastrian belief in Iran. We also visited the Yazd Water Museum and learnt more about qanats, the underground aqueducts that transport water from the mountains to the desert, an ancient Persian engineering marvel that continues to be the lifeblood of all the desert towns and cities of Iran today.

Panel explaining the elements of the Frahvahar, the symbol of Zoroastrianism, the primary religion of Iran before the Arab invasion. Yazd is the centre of Zoroastrian belief in Iran today.

Panel explaining the elements of the Frahvahar, the symbol of Zoroastrianism, the primary religion of Iran before the Arab invasion. Yazd is the centre of Zoroastrian belief in Iran today.

Cross-sectional view of a qanat, an underground aqueduct that transports water from the mountains to the desert, in the Yazd Water Museum

Cross-sectional view of a qanat, an underground aqueduct that transports water from the mountains to the desert, in the Yazd Water Museum

After Yazd, we took a long break in Mehriz, just 35km south of Yazd, to catch up on our massive backlog of photo sorting and captioning. When we finally left Mehriz, it was a tough day across the mountains to Tang-e Chenar, followed by a long desert stretch to Marvast.

Our hosts Ali & Sara cycling with us towards the snow-covered mountains near Mehriz. They were cycling up the mountains, while we were continuing on the road to Tang-e Chenar, and we were too slow for them, so we parted here.

Our hosts Ali & Sara cycling with us towards the snow-covered mountains near Mehriz. They were cycling up the mountains, while we were continuing on the road to Tang-e Chenar, and we were too slow for them, so we parted here.

Red rhubarb flowers covering the desert between Ali Abad and Marvast

Red rhubarb flowers covering the desert between Ali Abad and Marvast

Arriving in Marvast, we asked some locals if there was a hotel in town, and a man approached us and asked us to follow him. We thought that he was leading us to a hotel, but it turned out that he was leading us to his home. We were surprised by the spontaneous generosity and gratefully accepted, but we soon regretted our decision. We were constantly annoyed by everything: his toddler that was always taking things from our bags (and the parents who thought this was funny and did not stop him), his invitation to see some camels (at immediate notice, we had no choice), the salad for dinner (because we had no chance to buy food, and vegetarians just eat salad, right?), etc. We went to bed annoyed, and while overthinking things through another sleepless night, we diagnosed that what we were experiencing was culture shock.

Each individual encounter is relatively harmless. The truck driver that horns at the very moment he is overtaking, right into our ears. The car that stops in front of us, with people coming out to wave us down to stop for a photo with them. The kids that cycle beside us, making jokes we don't understand. The men (it is always men) who inconsiderately and insistently interrupt our conversations with others to ask where we're from. But a dozen such encounters every day, for the last few weeks, has worn us down so much that, even after a few rest days to recharge, it does not take long for us to reach our limit of tolerance again. Don't get us wrong, we still enjoy meeting hosts, and most of the hosts we have stayed with have been extraordinarily hospitable, taking care of our every need, allowing us to rest and recharge in their homes. But it is the people we meet on the streets who inadvertently chip away at our patience, while probably thinking that they are being nice and friendly.

We never expected to experience this, as we thought that we would be able to adapt to most cultures. We now think that, among the countries we have visited, Iran is perhaps the most culturally different from what we are familiar with (German and Singapore cultures are actually quite similar). Or maybe it is because our stays in other countries were shorter, and the cultural differences did not have as much time to manifest themselves.

In any case, after the sleepless night in Marvast, we continued up the beautiful, green Bavanat valley, where we spent the night in the Lonely Planet featured, relatively overpriced, western-tourist oriented Tourist Village of Abbas Barzegar and Family. We would have camped, but we were caught in a thunderstorm that afternoon, and we appreciated having a good bed and undisturbed rest that night. Feeling slightly better the next day, we continued up the valley to Safashahr, where we would join the bigger road to Shiraz.

Higher up in the Bavanat Valley, there were fewer trees and villages, but more shepherds with their sheep

Higher up in the Bavanat Valley, there were fewer trees and villages, but more shepherds with their sheep