Discovering sophisticated Iran

The Nasir-Ol-Molk Mosque prayer hall.
The Nasir-Ol-Molk Mosque prayer hall.

I had to be at 4 p.m. at the port of Sharjah, north of Dubai. The ferry boat was leaving harbor at 9 p.m., but as usual, paperwork and immigration had to been taking care of.
[TRAVELER NOTE: Check out at the end of this post for details about getting Iran visa]
The boat, few decades old, was operated by the Iranian company Valfarej 8. Anyhow, even with the rust nothing could be scarier than the dhow I took from Djibouti to Yemen, so I embark with confidence. After driving the truck in the belly of the whale, I walk upstairs and sit on one of the many benches travelers already made their territory.

Taking the boat to cross the Persian Gulf.
Taking the boat to cross the Persian Gulf.
The truck in the ferry.
The truck in the ferry.

Studying maps, I ask one of the officers on deck some information about roads leading to my first destination in Iran, Shiraz. He insists to take the important matter higher up, and soon the captain of the boat is here, giving advices.  Fidel to the legendary Iranian hospitality, he decides on the spot that I should travel in a more elegant fashion, and make available for me a large cabin on the upper deck. It was a treat to spend the 11 hours in this comfort, and after diner was served, I immediately felt asleep on one of the sofa of the royal cabin among my guidebooks and maps.

Arriving in Bandar Abbas, Iran.
Arriving in Bandar Abbas, Iran.

I woke up an hour before reaching destination and was on the outside deck when the anchor was let down. How exciting to be here, in one of the cradle of the civilization, now a provocative country dominating the media coverage.
Without waiting any longer, I jumped out of the boat and entered the immigration building. I had to wait a bit, as the usage is to process first the Iranians, and then the foreigners. Of course I was the only foreigners, so I couldn’t help but feel a bit lonely in the massive waiting room.

It will take many hours to be on the road again.
It will take many hours to be on the road again.

But soon, few members of the so-called “Secret police” asked me to follow them. I was asked many questions, and had to write the story of my life listing every place I spent time since I was born. I had to answer many questions on my job, my revenues, why I was doing this trip, why I was not married, if I had a Taeser, which place I would go to in Iran, and where next. After doing copies of my log book to keep a record of all the places I had been in the last months, they inspected my car quickly and took pictures of it. I was free to go, they finally told me. I have to say everybody was very nice.

Going north toward Shiraz.
Going north toward Shiraz.

Almost free in fact, since I had to take care of the import papers for my truck. While I was waiting, someone came to ask me my “Carnet de Passage”, and I assumed he was a custom officer. I should have known better. In fact he was a clearing agent happy to make some money while driving me from office to office, from the bank to the customs, to the port authority to the police. Back and forth. After few hours of this game, I was done and really ready to go. The agent asked me US$ 100 for his work. He was crazy, I told him. Even in the U.S. you don’t make that much money in so little time. I rounded up all the bills of mysterious currencies I keep with my documents, gave it to him and took of. I passed the gate before he was done counting his fortune. $40.

Still desert, yet a little bit more green.
Still desert, yet a little bit more green.

I arrived at 8:30 a.m. and it was now 4 p.m. With difficulty, I was able to get out of Bandar Abbas despite all the signs being in Arabic. My goal was to leave as soon as possible the coastal area and enter the mountains. There, I believed, I would be able to get some drier and colder air, making camping easier. The night came as I was driving. 150 miles from the port, I decided to spend the night on the parking of a gas station I spotted in the arid landscape. An hour later, I was speaking with curious truck drivers, and soon they invited me in a restaurant close to the gas station for refreshments.

Spectacular landscapes around the Zagros Mountains.
Spectacular landscapes around the Zagros Mountains.

Let me tell you my surprise when I was served these “refreshments”. I will just say that it is not the kind of drink you think you will find in a country like Iran. Few glasses later, the drivers paid the drinks and took off to continue their long drive, and I climbed the ladder to go to bed. I was indeed back in a more human climate, with temperatures going down a little at night. I woke up early in the morning, and after making a dent in the food reserves I got in Dubai, I took the road going to Shiraz.

Small tunnels, no emergency exit.
Small tunnels, no emergency exit.

The landscape, if dry, was a relief compared to my recent adventures. I was finished with sand. Now there were trees, mountains, greenery. The roads were good, but sometimes slow due to tunnels with two lanes only. Gas is cheap here too, as you can imagine. Foreigners have to pay four times the price for locals. US$ 1.52 per gallon for gasoline (40 cents a liter) is the price I have to pay. Still pretty cheap. Gas doesn’t seem too be very clean, and I can witness a lot of pollution in cities.

Glad to have a road to drive across the salt pan.
Glad to have a road to drive across the salt pan.

I was happy to see a saline as I was driving to Shiraz, but this time I decided to stay away of it, remembering my electric troubles after crossing the Uyuni salar in Bolivia. (getting smarter).
Shiraz is the center of the Persian culture and one of the most important city in the historical Islamic world. There, I looked for a hotel where I could park my truck off the street, but discouraged by the high prices (US$17), I continued to drive until I finally found a campground half-an-hour walk from the city center (Shiraz Tourist Complex, Ye Sa’di beginning of Nasr Blvd., US$10 a night). I opened my tent and happy to find a shower, I decided to stay here for the next two days.

Ancient buildings, getting closer to Shiraz.
Ancient buildings, getting closer to Shiraz.

The following day, I walked to the center and visited various monuments, including the Aramgah-E Shah-E Cheragh mausoleum, the Bagh-e Narajestan (Orange garden), and the Nasir-Ol-Molk mosque.

Shiraz, typical street.
Shiraz, typical street.
Bazaar in Shiraz.
Bazaar in Shiraz.

All these sites were splendid. You can really see the level of refinement in monuments belonging to old civilizations. It reminded me that I didn’t see such marvel probably since I crossed Peru. The architecture through Africa was not precisely stunning, but since Yemen and due to the rich history of the Arab world, the level is improving. That makes spending time in cities more enjoyable, and necessary.

The Bagh-e Narajestan. Garden and pavilion.
The Bagh-e Narajestan. Garden and pavilion.

The day after, I would be equally surprised and comforted in this idea while I visited the bazaars, equaled only in atmospheric charm by markets in the Americas. While Africa was interesting for its inhabitants, landscapes and adventures, I was longing for the sophistication you find in countries as Iran.

Shiraz's Bazar-e Vakil.
Shiraz's Bazar-e Vakil.

After checking few things on the car in the evening and cooking dinner, I watched an episode of “The long way round”. Few readers recommended me to it check out. I was able to download it in Dubai, and wanted to see it as I am now interested in taking the Siberia roads these guys followed. It is interesting to see how much logistic was involved in their trip. I guess I am lucky to still be on the road.

Selling carpets in a bazaar.
Selling carpets in a bazaar.

The following day, I spend few hours in the various and many bazaars in the city. At 4 p.m., I drive the 50 km (31 mi.) to Persepolis. I will camp in the parking lot, and visit the site in the morning.

Tea house.
Tea house.

I was lucky enough to obtain a visa for Iran. It took me two weeks, and was arranged by “Touran Zamin -Tour Operator”. You just need to send them a scan of your passport, a vague itinerary and for 35 euros they will obtain the visa for you. You can pick it up in any consulate abroad. At the time I applied I was in Djibouti, and I selected Oman as a pick up location, and there it took two days to get the visa sticker after I paid around US$60 for the visa itself.
Touran Zamin didn’t ask for any hotel reservation, which lot of other company did. I really recommend the company, and you can reach them at this address: touranzamin [AT]
The fee has to be paid by wire transfer to an account in Germany.

35 Replies to “Discovering sophisticated Iran”

  1. Asalaam aleikhum Nick,

    Good you are welcomed well in Iran. I am guessing you will head out to Esfehan next. Don’t miss that.

    If the Paki option would not work, I would like to suggest to you the map of: Gizi Kazakhstan map, ISBN 9789630083157 [google] this would give you an overview of surrounding countries as well.

    And for Russia, you can follow the advice of the Mongol Rally teams:

    You might find the rally is well underway and you might come across some teams in the 6-7 weeks it takes them to cross.


    Adventurous greetings,

    p.s. you might know this already, but the polite way is always to refuse things three times. They will do this to you as well if you want to pay for instance the bill.

  2. GREAT stories of Iran! If you have a little more time there in Shiraz, don’t miss the tombs of the famous poets, Hafez and Sa’adi. They are both beautiful grounds full of very friendly young students hanging around studying their poetry and eager to speak English. Also nearby is the Ali Ebn-e Hamze, which has the entire interior covered in tiny, shimmering mirrors. It is magnificent!

    When you get to Tehran, I remember seeing quite a few tents and people camping in the massive, but empty parking lot of the shrine of the Imam Khomeini. You might can camp there for free. I am not sure if the metro goes out that far, but it could save the headache of traffic to get you into the city center.

    I think you will also love Esfahan, as it is equally beautiful. Unfortunately, the river with all the beauiful bridges and the fountains of Imam Square were both dry due to drought when I was there, so I will be eager to see if that is still the case.

    Can’t wait for the next installment!


  3. Hi Nic,

    Iran looks wonderful, thats great you got to see Long Way Round, what a great show. You should check out their other series Long Way Down as well, since they took a similar route through Africa that you did, just the opposite direction.

    I am going to South America for 2 months starting in September and will be visiting some places inspired by this blog so thank you so much!

    Safe Travels!
    -Ryan in California

  4. Hi Nick,

    The Iran blog is awesome. Fantastic pictures. Even the tea house decor looks so cool. Hope you find a way to get to India. Safe travels.


  5. FYI – I thought of you when I got this month’s National Geographic Traveler magazine.
    There is an article about Andrew Evans who traveled from Washington D.C. to Antartica by using local buses.

  6. Hello, Nick,
    Glad to sense a more relaxed tone in your blog. I felt your apprehension in the latest blogs and I was beginning to worry about you being in that part of the world. However, I enjoy all your pictures and descriptions of the places you are visiting. You are such an interesting person and I, too, look daily for any new updates. The students will be back to school in two weeks and since I will be teaching French II this year, I will have mostly all of my students from last year’s French I classes. I know their first questions will be “where’s Nick”? So, thank you for allowing me to have the first day of school already planned…we will look at this site on the data projector and discuss all the pictures. Because of your visit here, they feel a special connection to you. We are all routing for you!

    Jo Bedford

  7. As usual, amazing photos and accounts of your adventures! I’m anxious to see what route you settle on as you head East. I know you’re not American but do you sense much anti American sentiment from the people in Iran? Good luck and travel safe!

  8. Good to see your new posting. You’re starting to compare (ancient) civilizations: travels through Peru, perils of Africa, appreciation of Iran. Very interesting. I’m not surprised at all that you are where you are. You seem to have a special strength and inner confidence that enables you speak with authority to people … all over the world – now. 🙂 Iran! You didn’t anticipate that. Isn’t it amazing how life takes you places.

    Blessings and peace!

  9. I actually said an “out loud” whoopeee…, when I saw you had updated. The pictures are something I just can’t get enough of. I can’t wait until you put out the book with the close ups, etc so we can really see the details. I am counting on there being tons of ’em!! It’s great that you made it to Iran, I can imagine what a thrill it has to be and the good luck you had on the trip over with the boat not as scary, and the captain giving you additional comfort. I’m surprised no one ever bothers you while you sleep in that tent. I guess it’s because of all the prayers that people are saying for God to protect you & keep you safe. The ancient buildings close to Shiraz struck me.., if only walls could talk. So many places from your trip…, so many lives lived. The pure wonder of it all. You need to write more because we need details now as to where you’re headed next & what you’re expecting. I’ll check again in a few minutes.. haha.
    Stay safe and here’s a hug from the good old sunny/hot/humid/beautiful Fort Lauderdale FL!

  10. Nick
    Glad to see you made your next destination safe and sound. The roads and climate are a vast improvement to what you’ve had to deal with.
    Enjoy your next leg and as alway be careful!
    Park Ridge, IL

  11. Nick, just wanted to say thank you for sharing your trip via blog. It is a great escape for someone who works at a desk all day or when winter is rough (midwestern winters…).

    I’m very curious about the middle east – do you think that you would have been able to make this leg of your trip with a female travel partner? What are some of the things she would have had to have done to travel through the countries you are going through?

  12. Once your expedition is over we have an indian guys doing it as i mentioned earlier and we will all follow their expedition

    Nick, You are taking risk of driving ON TRANS SIBERIAN HIGHWAY during this time of the year and that all the way to vladivostok. You didn’t do proper homework for such an expedition.

    It seems to me that you only wants to drive and not to enjoy or travel. But i wish you all the best and will definately pray for you for your trans siberian journey.

    Don’t forget to visit Yazd and Blue mosque of Esfahan. Also do visit Hamam, You will enjoy it.

    Keep Drivin

  13. Congratulations on aming it to Iran. What beautiful pictures! I don’t think that people realize what how amazing the middle east is! The buildings, the textiles, the landscape. How lucky you are! Be safe and enjoy your adventure!

  14. hola nick! congrats on getting to iran! too bad i’m an evil yank, as i would love to visit there sometime. hopefully you’ll have some joy with a pakistani visa. good luck and thanks for swinging by here in costa rica.

  15. Once again, love the pictures and descriptions Nic! Glad the boat made it across and your travels are filled with new sites, sounds and architecture! Fabulous!! Keep pressing on! Blessings!

  16. If you go through Russia, I hope you have good luck because of all the wild fires going on!
    Iran looks awesome and I still hope you get that Pakistan visa!

  17. Hey Nic!

    I’m glad you’ve made it to Iran. It sounds like you are really enjoying it! I liked the story about the truck drivers buying you a “drink” LOL I can only imagine what you are speaking of!

    It also sounds like your trip over to Iran was much better than the one from here to Yemen. I’m glad you were able to just drive right up on the boat and then be treated to such a luxurious cabin. It’s hard to believe you paid pretty close to the same price…if not more? for the trip from Djibouti to Yemen.

    Make sure you grab a bunch of souveniers from Iran. I’m sure there are many things there you will never be able to find in the US.

    I also want to thank you again for the St George glass you got me. I use that thing everyday! hahaha

    Take care and as always safe travels!


  18. I am extremely jealous of you Nick, it looks gorgeous there. Since day 1 Iran has been the place I have worried most about your trip but so far it seems like the government has had no major issues with your presence.

    Enjoy one of the first civilizations on earth and make sure we see all the pics 🙂

  19. Hey Nick,
    How is the quest for your Pakistan Visa progressing? If that doesn’t work out will you try a northern route out of Iran around the Caspian Sea through the land of Borat? Or will you ship back to Dubai then on to India?

    Good luck

  20. That was so great of the captain to let have a great room and rest up. Your spirits seem up stay strong in your Christian walk.

  21. Hello!

    Glad you are enjoying the visit to Iran, love your perspective and most of all, this part of the trip you are talking more about the lifestyle and customs of the people. Way to go! Good luck!

  22. Good to see your posting. WOW! Iran! that wasn’t on your original agenda. isn’t it interesting how life takes you in its mouth and shakes you all around. i like how you’re beginning to compare (ancient) civilizations – peru, africa, iran. very cool. where to now? when you get the route more secure, provide us with a map.

    blessings and peace,

  23. I, for one, hope that you take the northern route. A sidetrip into Mongolia sounds intriguing. You would have to bypass Burma on the southern route anyway, so a double bypass sounds very expensive. Good luck, either way.

  24. I had send some suggestions via email relating to Georgia and Azerbaijan, but a recent Wikitravel indicates Azerbaijan will charge thousands of dollars for vehicle entry. I don’t know if that still holds, but it would be discouraging.

    Since you are already in Iran, might it be prudent to make the next stop Turkmenistan, and then Kazakhstan? Kazakhstan would get you around the top of the current conflicts with the fewest border crossings. You can then enter China or Russia to complete the journey.

    Both of those countries seem to have fewer restrictions on travel, especially transiting to another destination.

    Uzbekistan seems to still have some unrest simmering, from the news.

  25. I’ v have had a experience to travel by using my vehicle from London to seoul 18,000km on 1999. i was shot in the leg when i was traveled in east area in in Zahedan Iran it was very dangerouse and Be forewarned, there are many gun man who have designs on taken travelers hostage.

    Alex Nam

  26. Nice Pictures. I guess these are the first pictures of an Iranian city I have ever seen. I still hope you get the Pakistani visa and be able to travel to India.

    Stay safe..


  27. Hi Nicolas!

    I swear, your photos gets better with each posting! Each week I look forward to see where your adventurous travels will take us – seeing the photos of Iran is such a wonderful surprise.

    Whatever route you take – be safe!

    Take care.


  28. Good Morning/Evening Nick:

    Yep, I remember this rather “restless” feeling a few years back when my daughter and son-in-law were traveling through Viet Nam, Cambodia and in that region! I honestly did not rest until they were back home, on US soil. My frame of reference was of course, the Viet Nam War, but no matter what I knew intellectually about current day Viet Nam and it being a must see country to visit, I remained restless. Now that you are in a part of the world that is most dangerous to travel through, I find myself checking your blog and Twitter throughout the day, for any word or symbol that all is well with you: new photos, an updated comment, etc. So, the feelings spoken of here are real yet in most cases (as you have already demonstrated) unwarranted. Still, I look forward to reading your messages and viewing photos from Russia or somewhere in Asia. Take good care, Nick and remain wise. Hugs,

  29. Last year we drove from England to China. I highly recommend that if you go into the ‘Stans that you come up through Turkmenistan directly into Uzbekistan (avoid the Kazahkstan / Uzbekistan route…you are just adding a border and getting the same landscape plus you will see Kazahkstan when you head towards Almaty). Drive the length of Uzbekistan and check out all the great old cities and work yourself up to the crown jewel of that region: Kyrgyzstan.

    Kyrgyzstan is an amazing country that no one seem to knows much about. Here are some pics:

    I would go there even with the recent turmoil. The people are super friendly and the air is as crisp as it gets.

  30. Hello Nick! Funny you stumbled across my blog today, as today at lunch, I was able to catch up on yours for the first time in the past few months! I have some more catching up to do, but I am amazed at your adventure, and I absolutely love the photos of the saline areas in Bolivia! Best of luck, and I look forward to catching up on your adventure!

  31. If you’re going through Russia, the road through Far East Russia maybe better now than 6 years ago when the “Long Way Round” happened, but I don’t think anyone should lie to themselves that it’s any real road. Going alone all the way through there is very dangerous for one person completely unsupported. I don’t think it’s worth that risk. You’re probably better off splurging the bill for the tour guide and associated temporary driving license and vehicle registration fees to go through China to the coast.

    Even though you will miss all of south Asia, the experience through China will be different and rewarding itself in its own’ll probably even be cool to drive to Hong Kong and ship from there back to the US. I have family in the shipping business that might be able to help you from there. I will also be there in a few months if you choose that route and we can meet up.

    Anyhow, I’m anxious in finding out which way you will take at this point and certainly hope luck is with you!

    1. Hello all,
      Some answers to comments.
      Edwin: I was excited by the Siberia road, but you are right, difficult with no preparation.
      Mari: went to your blog. Looks good. Seems that you had great fun.
      Renee: Peru, Bolivia, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Iran have been the most interesting to me.
      ROTC: yes man, this whole part of the world is a nightmare for travelers. Africa was easy in comparison…
      Carolina: It would have been more complicated travel with a woman in this part of the world. Yemen may not have accepted a woman partner if I was not married to her. In Oman and UAE, if a woman is westerner, she doesn’t need to cover her hairs. But she definitely do in Iran.
      Mo in Flo: People here are frustrated by the U.N. economic sanctions in Iran, and attribute it mostly to the U.S. Some support the Iran government, some are fed up with it. They do understand however the difference between the attitude of a government and what its people think. SO mostly, I think an American traveler in Iran would have an OK time, but with a lot of talking to do…
      Suzanne A.: Thanks for the tips. i had a look at the shrine to camp down there, but it’s quite far of the city, and needed to take care of business early. keep the advices coming!
      Coen: yes man, the Pakistan visa is a definite no go. Shipping is my only option now. Definitely looking forward to be in a part of the world where it is easier to travel between countries. Central and South America were a breeze…

  32. Good choice on shipping to India. Hope that works out! It’ll more than likely be cheaper than going into China via Russia. But if I have to go into Russia, I’ll definitely go into China because there isn’t any other prudent way to reach the Pacific.

Comments are closed.