Hitchhiking in Iran: road stories #8 – from Isfahan to Shiraz

Meeting local women in Esfahan - header

Isfahan: the most beautiful city so far and the Couchsurfing nightmare

The arches of Siosepol bridge, Esfahan

The arches of Siosepol bridge

Couchsurfing did not go well for us in Isfahan. Our first host was friendly enough but when he told us on the second day that he had to go to Tehran for work and that we would have to leave we were not best pleased. An emergency couchsurfing request later gave us our second host in the city, an English teacher, who would let us stay on the condition that we would come to his class and talk to his students.

For those of you not familiar with the expression ‘a busman’s holiday’  let me briefly explain. We are English teachers and the idea of going on holiday and doing our jobs but this time without pay didn’t exactly appeal to us. Still, we were desperate, so along we went.

Now, Iranian people are absolutely lovely, but sometimes they don’t really understand that there are some things that we don’t want to talk about or do. Our host’s students asked us questions, and not your obvious questions, but asking how much money we earned, how much money we had, what religion we are, why weren’t we religious, why didn’t we have children, what was our Facebook, and our Skype, and our phone numbers … We dealt with it the best we could but it is fair to say that there are better ways to spend your evening in arguably the most beautiful city in Iran.

Arm wrestling with Mohammed BrianIf that was it with the bad Couchsurfing experiences, it would be enough. But no, the next night we were on the move again as our Couchsurfing host number 2 was passing us onto his friend, another English teacher, who also requested / demanded that we come to his class and talk to his students! And so the whole process was repeated again, too personal questions, fake smiles etcetera, etcetera, etcetera … Things were not all bad however, as we did meet a nice student who brought us some wine to drink and Ania got to give him an arm wrestle, (he is ranked 4th in the world in his weight division) which is one of her favourite things to do.

In between all this movement we did actually try to see the city to which we had came. The first day’s walk started strangely, with a brief pitstop with some kids in a park who insisted that we stopped and smoked with them :)

Park people, EsfahanWe were then stopped by a jumpy looking guy who was very insistent about something, but seeing as he didn’t speak English, it was quite hard to understand exactly what it was. He then showed us a video of Kate Perry and that only added to the confusion. Eventually, an elderly man with a passing resemblance to Samuel L. Jackson explained to us that the man was asking us if we had any western music and pictures of foreign places. So, we loaded up his phone with Radiohead, Bonobo and some pictures of our travels in Europe and he was a happy man. We were happy too as it proved that local people were hungry for foreign influences and that our Cultural Relay Project would work and would be well-received in Iran.

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Esfahan, IranIsfahan was a stunning place, but I must admit that it wasn’t quite the wonder I was expecting. Perhaps it was because of the hassle we had with accommodation but apart from the spell-binding central squarethe fabulous Imam Khomeini Mosque (where we paid somebody a little bit of cash to climb the minaret with stunning views over the old town) and the beautiful bridges spanning the river, I found it to be lacking that awe-inspiring effect I had heard so much about. That’s not to say it wasn’t nice, however, and it was certainly the prettiest place we had visited in Iran up to now.

Hitchhike to Shiraz

The hitch-hike much like our Couchsurfing started badly. Our 2nd English teacher hosts agreed to drive us to the edge of the city but despite our pleas dropped us right next to the taxi rank, insisting that they knew better than us. They had never hitchhiked before so I don’t know where their confidence came from but it quickly became apparent that they were talking out of their arses. The moment we got out of the car we were surrounded by taxi drivers, yelling, shouting, cajoling us to get in their cars. We manoeuvred away from them and tried to stop passing cars but everybody wanted money. At last somebody took pity, threw us into the car and drove us onto the next town.

The next car was two young lads who, we were under the impression, would drive us to Shiraz. It was only after they had pulled out a bag of herbs ;), smoke filled the car and confusion reigned, did we learn they were not actually going to Shiraz but only until the next town. Oh, well.

After putting some food into our bellies, we stopped a truck that was crawling its way south. The going was slow but at least we were making progress. The ride would have been uneventful if it wasn’t for the driver’s strange want to show me some videos on his mobile phone. The videos, and there were at least 10 of them, all involved local women shaking their breasts and arses in alluring, and some not so alluring, positions. I assume they were prostitutes he had hired but I still don’t understand how he expected me to respond. Well done old chap, fine work!

We clambered out of the truck with darkness all around not so far from Shiraz. Finally a taxi driver stopped and agreed to take us for nothing into the city. A nice end to a tough day.

written by: Jon

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  • Thanks Jon, it’s nice to hear your opinion on the society. My general impression about Iranian society is exactly the same, and it’s great that you could have the chance to interact with different types of people, giving you an idea that took me many many years to arrive to it!

    • Hi Milad, Thanks a lot for your kind words. Soon we will be finished writing about Iran and we have 2 posts coming up about our subjective impressions of Iranian people and culture so stay tuned. We always value your opinion and as always we would love to hear your thoughts on it and anything else you think we may have missed!

  • I smile, imagining you standing for a second time through the third degree questionnaire of the whole English class…oh, well, people are sometimes as curious as they are hospitable in these lands. Precisely in Isfahan we had some pretty funny hosts and ended up sleeping in the park. Also ended up getting stolen almost all our stuff…but that’s a story for another day :) Happy travels!

  • I can totally relate to the English teaching thing. I mean I understand why hosts might want that, but sometimes it’s just too much! When I was cycling through Vietnam I got invited to stay with a local woman who was an English teacher. I stayed with her for 2-3 days and was basically just working for her or she took me to ‘play ping pong’ which then turned into me watching her play ping pong and presenting me to her friends, I felt like she was bragging a lot about that she found a foreigner. Which I get in a way, but it would have been nice to also just spend some time talking or looking at her city. I don’t know, sometimes I feel like I’m not grateful enough anymore. I remember when I started hitchhiking and using couchsurfing, I got soo excited every time I would get invited to someone’s house or for lunch/ dinner etc – but now I sometimes almost expect it, or I start feeling like it’s too much and I just want to be left alone – especially when it feels like it’s only about bragging about having a ‘foreigner friend’. I think I need to be more grateful haha

    • That’s very interesting what you say. We felt this way a lot in Iran especially because people there are super hospitable, but some of them also like ‘bragging’ about having foreign friends. It’s a prestige thing for them and they consider British people to be particularly valuable ‘friends’. And of course, we also ended up feeling guilty about not wanting to be invited somewhere or getting dragged by someone to be shown off to their friends. I guess, we all have our limits :)

  • Other food for thought in the subject of ‘trophy friends’: don’t travellers feel the same way about local people they encounter? I mean, don’t you take interest in people because they are exotic to you?

    • I don’t know about other travellers, I can only speak for myself and I disagree with that. Of course, we take an interest in local people because they can be a great source of information about the culture we are trying to explore and learn about, but I wouldn’t say that we view them as trophy friends just because they are foreign. I would never look back on the people we have met on the road and take pride in just the fact that we have ‘acquired’ some ‘rare’ friends like Turkmen, Uzbek, Tajik or Iranian. After all they are all just people and the more you learn about them, the more you realise they are not so different from your friends back home. That’s just my opinion.

  • Those darn clever sneaky Esfahanis. Sounds like your hosts were in cahoots and only registered as hosts to recruit native English speakers for their class. I bet they even charged their students extra for the mini seminar :-)

    I mean getting passed off twice by people who just happened to be English teachers while imposing on their guests which is a huge cultural no no. You my friends had a total Isfahani experience. BTW having said that I have seen people in Esfahan completely different from the usual stories they are famous for which usually involves taken advantage of without even feeling it.

    • It was a bit cheeky! So do Esfahanians have this reputation across all of Iran? That’s really interesting! We also had some great experiences in the city with some really nice people though. Especially when walking through a park in the middle of the day only to be stopped by some kids who were smoking and really wanted to involve us :) The rest of the day was very mellow I can tell you.