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The South of Iran, or the road most traveled

· Travel Experience,Iran,Sightseeing,Cities,Couchsurfing

We just came back from the obligatory tour to the South of Iran: Esfahan, Yazd and Shiraz. All three of them are well-known touristic spots with extremely impressive Islamic architecture and glorious history.

If we would give one advice for traveling the South of Iran, it would be this: Avoid August. Peak temperature reached close to 40 degrees during noon time. Generally, we set out early (more or less…) wandering around the cities and took a break in the shade from around 2 pm to 5 pm, before hitting the streets again. Lots of the touristic places in the South of Iran are illuminated so they are the most beautiful at sunset and in the dark.

Adding to the temperature is the Iranian dress code leaving us sweating and asking: 

“Why the hell are we in Southern Iran in August?”​

Men are supposed to wear long trousers while women have to wear a hijab around the head, long sleeves and shirts/dresses long enough to cover the butt (“Don’t know who came up with this idea, but can’t have been a woman during summer time...”). At least, in Iran the definition of hijab seems to be somewhat loose, as showing some hair is not a problem. Still, Nicole was very happy about investing 5 Euros into a new lighter headscarf in Yazd.

We made the entire tour travelling from one city to the other using buses - most times taking the “VIP” night buses. Inside the cities getting around was not that super easy though. The cities themselves don’t have public transport systems as developed as Tehran so we walked quite a lot and used the occasional taxi. In theory, the Iranian app Snapp should work just like UBER. In practice however, the drivers don’t seem to use the in-app navigator and in 90% of cases would call you so that you can describe to them where exactly you are. Turns out that does not work too well if you don’t speak Farsi. So all in all, we got Snapp to work twice, once with our Couchsurfing host speaking to the driver and once where the driver just showed up without calling.

Esfahan - (Conversations with) Half of the World

Architecturally, Esfahan, nicknamed Half of the World, is by far the most impressive of the three cities, with mesmerizing mosques and endless stone bridges. Here are some impressions:

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We stayed at Mohammed’s, a guy who contacted us via a Facebook group and offered us a private room for 15 Euros per night. He was so nice to pick us up from the bus terminal at 5 am and  the two following days he drove us around the city since he was free. He was also studying German and wanted to do his Master’s in good old Schland to get away from “crazy Iran”. So he used the opportunity getting some advice from us on how to get a visa or to immigrate in various legal and illegal ways to Europe.

Outside the tourist attractions, Iranians would often come up and start conversations with us. Two high school boys took us to a carpet shop where the shopkeeper taught us valuable informations about Persian carpets while drinking tea. When Kevin told people that he was from Germany, he would often be met with incredulous starts. So after a while, he just told them he was from China (which was true anyways). Funny thing however was that when Nicole started telling them that she was also from China, most people just accepted that. No one could give us a compelling argument yet why it was plausible that Nicole was from China but not that Kevin was from Germany.

Yazd: Hostels with free watermelons and fighting sandstorms in the desert

In our opinion, Yazd is the most pleasant of the three cities - smaller, much more quiet and laid back. Its old town consists of small alleys with brick and clay walls around you, granting shadow during the hot days. There are lots of small coffee shops and restaurants when we were tired from exploring the mosques and other sights.

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The best part about Yazd might have been our hostel, Yazd Hostel Oasis, which was recommended to us in Tehran. It had a really comfortable yard with a small pool and included breakfast with eggs and strong coffee, mmmh. And on top of that, the staff would cut us watermelons whenever we asked! These juicy gigantic green balls probably saved our lives more than once.

On our second full day in Yazd, we decided to hit the deserts around the city to take a break from the city-hopping we have done so far. Hostels and tour operators all organize overnight stays to nearby deserts. But since we had our own camping equipment, we just hired a driver through our hostel and set out on our own. In the end, we stayed in a massive sand dune near Haft Sang Tourist Camp.

Camping in the desert turned out to be much harder than we expected. A constant desert wind would continuously threaten our tent. Swaths of sand would enter our tent during our sleep. Kevin was pretty frustrated when he couldn't find his sleeping mask to cover his eyes from the sand. Also, the sudden drop of temperature while sleeping meant that we would wake up in the middle of the night to put on more clothes.

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But, we did what we came out for: A beautiful clear view of the stars away from any cities.

Couchsurfing and holy shrines in Shiraz

Coming back from the desert early morning and after some back and forth, we arranged couchsurfing at Mohammed’s (yes same name - there are just toooo many Mohammeds in this world), another extremely nice Iranian guy. He made the effort to show us some local coffee shops and places where young Iranians would gather at night to eat street food and smoke Shisha, places we probably wouldn’t have discovered otherwise.

On our first day in Shiraz, Mohammed drove us and guided us through Persepolis, the ancient capital of the Persian Empire. Left in ruins by Alexander the Great, the remains still let us imagine the wealth of this kingdom that once was. The only weird thing happened when we were leaving and Mohammed suddenly expected payment for driving us to Persepolis, which he did not talk about before. Though he was super friendly, this turn in the end left us slightly befuddled (and in the end we payed him around 20 Euros).

In Shiraz itself, the biggest attraction is the holy shrine of the brothers of Imam Reza (Shah Cheragh). It was the first place we being foreigners were not allowed to enter on our own. We had to be accompanied by a guide (for free) who showed us around in the impressive courtyards and gave us some pretty interesting insights about the place. She also provided us a staple of flyers and brochures about Islam and hijab to study and share with our friends back home. On top of that, Nicole had to wear a Chador, a veil covering her from head to feet (also nothing a woman can have invented while temperatures hit 40 degrees…).

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On our last day, with a lot of free time at hand, we sat down in beautiful Conex café in an arts complex in the north of the city - writing, drawing and planning the rest of the trip: 

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Now we will head north of Tehran to do a three-day's hike in the Alamut valley before travelling by bus to Baku, where we will hopefully find the boat to Kazakhstan.