To avoid cycling into Tehran's traffic altogether, we decided to take the bus from Karaj to Qom, based on the recommendation of our host in Karaj. Immediately south of Tehran is more or less where the desert starts, and it did not sound too appealing to cycle in busy traffic on the hot and dusty road, so we took a shortcut.
Qom is considered the religious capital of Iran, and the largest centre for Shi'a scholarship in the world. The main holy site in the city is the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, and every year, thousands of Shi'a Muslims from Iran and all over the world make a pilgrimage to this site. Non-Muslim foreigners can only visit the site with a volunteer guide (who are waiting behind the entrance), and we were guided by a Thai Muslim scholar who has been studying Islam in Qom for the last nine years.
Luckily, we also found a couchsurfer who offered to drive us around the city and show us some of the other sites. As we went around town, he shared with us so many crazy stories about living as an unreligious person in one of the holiest cities in the world. At least we felt more normal with him, as Qom is highly conservative and strangely uniform, with almost all the women wearing chadors and many men wearing mullah clothing, and we stood out and felt watched more than ever before.
From Qom, we cycled to Kashan, a city on the edge of the Maranjab desert. We did not know much about the city before, and were surprised by the number of tourists that we saw, though we now know that it is a popular stop between Tehran and Isfahan. Most tourists come here to see the beautiful gardens and historical houses as well as visit the desert, and this is also what we did.
We took a tour of the desert with our Couchsurfing host and another guest that he had accepted at the same time. To our surprise, this guest was the same Argentinian guy that we had first met on the same free tour in Baku, then at the Turkmenistan embassy in Tehran! Getting to the desert on a 4x4 with a crazy driver, we spent quite a lot of time on the sand dunes and the Namak Lake, a salt lake that is mostly dry (i.e. a salt flat) unless there have been recent rains.
Returning late from the desert, our Couchsurfing host could no longer host us, so we spent the night in the Aran va Bidgol city park. We had read many reports that city park camping in Iran is "easy" - there are toilets, and sometimes even a guard on duty for security. However, our experience was quite different. Most Iranians sleep late, and when we are hosted, it is normal to have dinner at 9-10pm, and kids are awake until their parents sleep, usually past midnight. Thus, the park still had many people picnicking and strolling around and kids in the playground when we set up camp at 11.30pm, and it was just too noisy and busy for us to fall asleep, especially since there was the constant risk of someone wanting to talk to us if they found us. This, plus the fact that we would be awaken in the morning by the sun and the sounds of early park goers, ensured insufficient sleep that night.
From Kashan, we took a small road to Zavareh, following the edge of the desert. We were blessed with two days of strong tailwind, and as we cruised along, the landscape around us became more and more desert-like, with tumbleweed growing everywhere and the wind blowing sand in waves across the road.
On the way, we spent a night at the Matin Abad Desert Eco-Resort, where we splurged on a luxury tent (~20€ for accommodation + dinner + breakfast). The resort markets itself on its sustainability practices, and while we do not know the details, we were pleasantly surprised that the buffet-style dinner was mostly vegetarian, with only one meat dish carefully rationed by a staff, in contrast to the prevalent meat-eating culture here. We also happened to be there on a weekend, and the resort was full of local tourists (probably mostly from Tehran), and it was interesting to observe how Islamic dress codes of many women become more liberal while on holiday in the desert (there may be no headscarf, but there is always some other headgear like a hat).
Zavareh is a small traditional desert town that our hosts in Tehran recommended us to visit. We rolled into town not knowing what to expect, and sat down for lunch at a caravanserai-like parking lot with a man who appeared to be the guard. As usual, several people came up to talk to us in Farsi, and at some point, one of the men produced a large set of keys and said that he could show us the major mosques (who knew the mosques were locked?). We followed him and tried to understand his explanations through Google Translate. As luck would have it, at the entrance of the first mosque, we met a couple from Isfahan, who also joined our "tour". They helped us with translations as we visited the Pa Minar Mosque and the Zavareh Grand Mosque together. The key-bearing man then suggested several other sites in the old town, which we visited together with the Isfahan couple. On the way back to their car, we met another man who said that he had an interesting building to show us. We followed him to a beautiful traditional house, built by his grandfather and where some of his relatives still live. What a tour!
From Zavareh, we battled strong headwinds to reach Ardestan, taking 2h to cover the short 10km distance between the towns. In Ardestan, we explored the Qanat of Moon, a unique two-level qanat, or underground aqueduct used to transport water from the mountains into the desert areas. Not wanting to battle the strong winds any further, exhausted after another night of city park camping, and desperately needing a mental break, we checked into the only hotel in town and stayed there for 3 nights.
Feeling more refreshed after the unplanned break, it was just 2 more days over some mountains to Isfahan. But just 50km from Isfahan, Hannah suddenly came down with a bad stomachache and could not cycle anymore. Luckily, we had stopped just across the road from a road construction site office, and some of the managers working there saw us and invited us in to rest. We ended up having lunch there (Heiko, mostly) and then they even gave us a ride all the way into Isfahan.
We never expected to experience so much already on the way to Isfahan, and they say that "Isfahan is half the world", so we better leave that for the next blog post.