Travelling in Iran during Ramadan

Posted on 2019-05-29

We were unsure about what to expect when cycling in Iran during Ramadan. Iran being an "Islamic Republic", fasting during Ramadan is mandated by law. However, there are a number of exceptions, the most important one for us being that travellers are exempted. We had heard that restaurants in hotels and along freeways would therefore be open for travellers, but we did not know how it would be like elsewhere, or if we would be able to buy any food during daylight hours. But in the end, Ramadan barely affected us at all. We had the impression that many, if not most, people didn't fast, but cooked their regular meals at home or secretly snacked at work. Using the travellers' exemption, we saw many people having roadside picnics, often offering to share food or drink with us. Not only are supermarkets and grocery shops open all day, shop owners also sometimes offered us tea. Out of politeness, we tried not to eat and drink on the road when others could see us, but once, when we hid behind some trees and bushes, a passing driver saw our parked bicycles, found us, and shared a honeydew melon with us. Of our hosts during Ramadan, only one was fasting, while some others claimed different exemptions, such as being pregnant, sick, too young, too old, or vegetarian (this last one is not really legally valid though :P), or just didn't care. We also strongly doubt that most of our previous hosts are fasting, especially the self-proclaimed atheists or the ones who offered us homemade beer and wine. There was even some confusion about the start of Ramadan. Ramadan is a month of the Arabic lunar calendar and as such starts with the new moon. Astronomically, in 2019, this would have been the 6th of May, and in most Islamic countries, this is also the legal start date. But in Iran, several astronomers are sent out into all corners of the country, and at least one of them has to see the new crescent, in order for Ramadan to begin. It seems that this year, they didn't see the crescent on 6th of May, so Ramadan was postponed for a day. We were in Mehriz on this date, and while our hosts seemed to be aware of this, the shops were not, which resulted in some confusion, and the inability to buy a birthday cake during the day. In any case, the only effect Ramadan had on us was that we didn't eat out anymore (restaurants open too late for us - the sun sets around 8pm these days) and that it was difficult to find a hidden place to eat ice cream before it melted.

Having lunch in a drainage tunnel under the road, usually the only place to hide from the scorching desert sun, with the added advantage of hiding from people as well

Having lunch in a drainage tunnel under the road, usually the only place to hide from the scorching desert sun, with the added advantage of hiding from people as well

From Safashahr, we continued on to Shiraz, passing by several of the famous ancient cities of Iran on the way. Our first stop was Pasargad, where, next to a small, modern village, there are the ruins of one of the ancient capitals of Persia. Pasargad was founded as the capital of the Achaemenid Empire, also called the First Persian Empire, in the 6th century BC, before it was moved to Persepolis several decades later. Only a few ruins remain on the large archaeological site, among them the tomb of Cyrus the Great, a very successful Persian king who is revered as a hero by Iranians to this day. After visiting the site, we camped nearby next to a dry riverbed, and on the next day we continued on to the city of Marvdasht, close to the most famous of all the ancient Persian cities, Persepolis. Unfortunately, in Marvdasht, we were hosted by another "do-as-I-say" host, who insisted on going with us to all the historic sights and taking us to his village despite his unfavourable schedule. With too much uncertainty and non-negotiability of his plans, instead of staying two nights as planned, we left after the first night and continued on our own.

Tomb of Cyrus the Great in Pasargad, built around 540-530 BC. Cyrus the Great was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, the first Persian Empire, and Pasargad was its capital city under his rule.

Tomb of Cyrus the Great in Pasargad, built around 540-530 BC. Cyrus the Great was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, the first Persian Empire, and Pasargad was its capital city under his rule.

Persepolis is much more spectacular to visit than Pasargad. Founded a few decades after Pasargad, Persepolis was another capital of the Achaemenid Empire, but it appears to have been built more for ceremonial use than as a centre of administration. A number of grand palaces were built on top of a huge artificial terrace, and this was where the king would receive his officers and delegates from subject nations of the empire, as represented in the stairway reliefs. They would bring gifts, which were then kept in a huge treasury palace. Persepolis was plundered and destroyed by the army of Alexander the Great after he conquered the Persian Empire in 330 BC, and some of the ruins still bear traces of having been destroyed by fire. While the lower city has almost completely disappeared, a high density of impressive ruins can still be seen on the terrace.

View of Persepolis from the Tomb of Artaxerxes III

View of Persepolis from the Tomb of Artaxerxes III

Nearby Persepolis, there are two other ancient sites, Naqsh-e Rajab and Naqsh-e Rustam. We initially planned to visit both these smaller sites on the same day after Persepolis, but we were delayed by yet another thunderstorm - much to our surprise, we had thunderstorms almost every day we were in the region around Marvdasht and Shiraz (lightning and thunder, but not so much rain). After the storm passed, we visited Naqsh-e Rajab, where there are some rock-cut reliefs showing scenes of investiture or victory of various Persian kings. It was then almost sunset, so we found a place to camp next to another dry riverbed, and only visited Naqsh-e Rustam the next morning. This ancient site is a necropolis where four Persian kings were buried in chambers cut high up into a cliff, and the whole site is decorated with a number of large reliefs as well.

Naqsh-e Rustam, the necropolis of the Achaemenid empire, with four large tombs cut high into the cliff face. The tombs are believed to be those of Achaemenid kings (from left to right) Darius II, Artaxerxes I, Darius I, and Xerxes I.

Naqsh-e Rustam, the necropolis of the Achaemenid empire, with four large tombs cut high into the cliff face. The tombs are believed to be those of Achaemenid kings (from left to right) Darius II, Artaxerxes I, Darius I, and Xerxes I.

From Naqsh-e Rustam, it was just one day of cycling to Shiraz, where we checked into a hostel, because we had become a bit tired of meeting new people (unfortunately a recurring trend for us in Iran). Shiraz has a number of interesting sights, but some of them, such as the bazaar, the caravaserai, and a few mosques, were closed, because we were there on a Friday. However, we did not miss out on the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, more commonly known as the Pink Mosque, probably the most popular tourist attraction in the city. The popular name derives from the extensive use of the colour pink on its tiles, and early in the morning, when the sun is still low, beautiful patterns of light are created through the colourful stained-glass mosaic windows lining one side of the the prayer hall. We also had time to visit the Naranjestan-e Qavam, a historical house with elaborately decorated rooms and a beautiful garden, before it was time to cycle to the train station to catch our train to Tehran.

Inside the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz, also popularly known as the Pink Mosque, with sunlight streaming in through the colourful stained-glass mosaic windows lining the main prayer hall

Inside the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz, also popularly known as the Pink Mosque, with sunlight streaming in through the colourful stained-glass mosaic windows lining the main prayer hall

At this point, we had less than 2 weeks left on our Iranian visas, still quite some time, but not long enough to cycle all the way across the desert to the Turkmenistan border. Originally, we were thinking of taking a bus to Bandar Abbas, on the Persian Gulf, to spend a few days there exploring a different region. But with the bus taking about 9 hours from Shiraz, the weather there being extremely hot, and tensions between the USA and Iran being a bit high in the Gulf, we decided to take a train to Mashhad instead, and spend the rest of our visa time having a proper rest there. We just missed the last tickets on the direct train from Shiraz to Mashhad, but we were very happy to take two overnight trains instead, stopping in Tehran, where we stayed another night with our fabulous hosts there. Similar to our previous days in Tehran, we did no sightseeing, but spent most of our time in the city looking to buy various items of equipment.

Both from Shiraz to Tehran and from Tehran to Mashhad, it was a bit tricky to get our bicycles onto the train. We had heard and read that it should not be a problem, and some station staff even confirmed this, but the train staff of both trains did not allow us to board, saying that it was forbidden and that there was no space, since, contrary to our expectations, there was no cargo carriage. After a lot of negotiation, we were finally allowed to put our bicycles at the first door of the first carriage, but had to take all our luggage into our small compartment in another carriage. Thankfully, the people we shared the compartments with were all really nice and helped us to somehow store everything in the limited space. The old couple we shared the compartment with on the first train was particularly memorable: They barely spoke any English, but we were able to communicate fairly well using Google Translate and learnt that they were on their way back to Tehran from visiting family in Shiraz. After all the "crazy" people we had encountered on the roads in southern Iran (see previous blog post), they seemed so "normal" to us, and we were really thankful for their company. They fended away and rolled their eyes when other nosy people on the train came to our compartment to ask us all the usual questions in Persian, and then even insisted on buying us some food from the train restaurant (probably after seeing that we had only packed our usual bread and spread)!

Our compartment mates for our overnight train from Shiraz to Tehran was this cute old couple, who were returning to Tehran after visiting relatives in Shiraz. They bought us food, fended off annoying people asking us where we were from, and showed us photos from their Instagram profile, to which we could no longer use our usual excuse that we were too old for Instagram...

Our compartment mates for our overnight train from Shiraz to Tehran was this cute old couple, who were returning to Tehran after visiting relatives in Shiraz. They bought us food, fended off annoying people asking us where we were from, and showed us photos from their Instagram profile, to which we could no longer use our usual excuse that we were too old for Instagram...

When we reached Mashhad, our Japanese friend Kanji was already there, having cycled all the way across the vast desert. Since we first met in Tbilisi, we met up again for a surprising number of times, especially in Iran (where we met in Tehran, Isfahan, Yazd, and Mashhad), given that we are cycling different routes at different speeds. However, because he will be taking fewer long breaks and detours from now on, we probably won't be able to catch up with him again on this trip, so it was in Mashhad that we said our final goodbyes (for now!). We allowed ourselves six days in Mashhad to relax and recharge before the start of the next, tougher segment of our trip.

Probably our last photo with Kanji, before he leaves for Turkmenistan. He will not be taking so many long breaks and detours from now on, so we will probably not be able to catch up with him anymore on our trip :( Also, Hannah forgot her headscarf when stepping outside the hotel because she just woke up...

Probably our last photo with Kanji, before he leaves for Turkmenistan. He will not be taking so many long breaks and detours from now on, so we will probably not be able to catch up with him anymore on our trip :( Also, Hannah forgot her headscarf when stepping outside the hotel because she just woke up...

Despite Mashhad being the second largest city in Iran, there is not much to see except for the Holy Shrine, where the eighth Shiite Imam, Imam Reza, is buried. The shrine is a gigantic complex with a mosque, several museums, a library, a university, and a police station, among many other facilities, and is the holiest site in Iran. The day we visited was also the anniversary of the death of the first Shiite Imam, Imam Ali, and the shrine (and the city) was full of pilgrims from Iran as well as other countries who had come to mourn and pray. As with all other holy shrines, non-Muslim foreign visitors are only allowed to visit the shrine with a guide, who is assigned to you at the entrance. You can, of course, lie your way in by claiming to be a practising Muslim, but our guides at the holy shrines in Qom and Shiraz were both interesting and informative, so we were not averse to taking a guide. However, this time, our guide only led us around all the courtyards without much information, and we also had to sit through several videos about the shrine as well as a short talk by a "propaganda mullah" (for lack of a better term). He claimed, among other things, that no wars were ever started by Muslims, and that women and men are entirely equal in Islam. He also gave us a stack of books, including one on the "rights of women in Islam", written by an ayatollah, that started with the same statement about gender equality, but then went on to say that men were naturally (biologically) unable to control their sexual urges, that the purpose of marriage was for men to be able to fulfil their sexual needs legally, and that the duty of women was to preserve their softness and beauty for their husbands, which entails various limitations on their lifestyle choices. With men so entitled by their religious leaders, no wonder the rate of sexual assault and abuse in this country is high. We also wonder if the "propaganda mullah" really believed that his talk and books would give us a good impression of the country or religion...

One of the central courtyards of the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad. The tomb of Imam Reza, the eighth Shiite Imam, is located below the golden dome to the left of the iwan, and can be seen through the windows in front. He is buried underground below the tomb.

One of the central courtyards of the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad. The tomb of Imam Reza, the eighth Shiite Imam, is located below the golden dome to the left of the iwan, and can be seen through the windows in front. He is buried underground below the tomb.

From Mashhad, it was just 190km to Sarakhs, the last Iranian town just before the Turkmenistan border. With a slight downhill almost all of the way, we thought two days would be enough, even with some strong sidewinds. We left Mashhad a day earlier than planned to avoid the worst of the winds, but the days were still hard - the second day saw us in the saddle for over 7 hours, covering only 93km. Arriving in Sarakhs dead exhausted, we were thankful that we had one more day of rest before entering Turkmenistan. Given our level of fitness (or lack thereof, even after 8700km), we are leaving Iran with no illusions about being able to cycle across Turkmenistan in 5 days.