Iran: A Day of Freedom in the Desert

This is moving traffic in Shiraz, Iran, with no space between cars. Max Hartshorne photos.
This is moving traffic in Shiraz, Iran, with no space between cars. Max Hartshorne photos.

Dasht-E-Kavir, Iran: Escaping Iran’s Harsh Laws in the Desert

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

This grumpy camel groaned and complained when it was time to get up.
This grumpy camel groaned and complained when it was time to get up.

We were up at 4:30 am in our Tehran hotel room, ready to hit the streets at one of the few hours when the traffic wasn’t going to be killer. Speeding along in a car,

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we met a bus full of Tehranians also interested in a day trip to soak in the wide open spaces of Iran’s vast desert lands, Dasht-E-Kavir, south of the holy city of Qom.

The new coach’s window had a big sticker that reads “Only God,” and through this windshield, the road began to open up, with nothing but scrubby bushes and litter on each side of the road. For miles on either side, there was neither mountain or city, just flat emptiness.

The vast emptiness is a tonic after Tehran's chaotic traffic and air pollution.
The vast emptiness is a tonic after Tehran’s chaotic traffic and air pollution.

But first we had to introduce ourselves, this being a friendly country where nobody remains a stranger for long. One by one, each of the smiling Iranians spoke into a microphone, telling the crowd a little about themselves, to big cheers from the crowd.

We were headed for Kashan, and then we’d turn north for the smaller town of Aran and into the vast central desert. The road would become a rutty dirt track, necessitating a switch to an older more beat-up bus without the air conditioning and comfy seats.

I was the only one who spoke in English, but that’s ok, here in Iran; a high percentage of people can understand and speak my native tongue. English is studied as the second language after Farsi, and most people are comfortable with a few words and a smile.

A Recharge

Since we had left the hotel so early, we needed a little recharge, and this was taken care of when we turned into a roadside restaurant for a big breakfast of steaming green lentils, frittata, feta cheese, fruits and Iran’s famous yogurt.

As in many other parts of the country, we’d have to settle for Nescafe, because brewed coffee isn’t usually found on any menus or buffets. Tea is the drink of choice, served in small glass cups with lots of lumps of sugar.

Black-clad Pilgrim women were getting out of a battered old bus, coming back from the holy city of Qom, where there are large theological schools and famous as a religious tourist destination because it is the birthplace of Hazrat Maasoomeh, revered by Shi’a, who died here 1200 years ago.

We drove over the rutty road, and big trucks and battered jeeps passed us by, along with a man herding a flock of camels from a motorcycle. The silence here when we stopped and I got a chance to walk out into the desert was a tonic after the honking horns and ambient nuttiness of busy Tehran.

The Desert Means Freedom

Iran's beautiful people look even better in the light of the desert.
Iran’s beautiful people look even better in the light of the desert.

But there was another reason these forty locals had ponied up $33 each for this excursion. It was clear right away, when some of the women pushed their headscarves back, and even took them off, walking freely amidst the scrub. Others held hands with their boyfriends.

One young woman changed out of her manteau, the required three-quarter length tunic and put on a short light blue jacket. This doesn’t sound like much, but I never saw an Iranian woman the whole week without the manteau or black chador on.

The desert means freedom, and an ability to get away from the oppressive heat of the religious regime, which since the 1979 revolution has imposed a strict dress code on all women over the age of 10.

“I was arrested once, they said my manteau was too short,” said a beautiful young professional woman named Solmaz, shaking her head to reveal black tresses, suddenly unfettered by the ubiquitous headscarf. “I had to go to the police station and sign a paper, promising never to do it again.”

Dress codes for women are changing in Iran.
Dress codes for women are changing in Iran

Another woman said the same thing, but in her case, the card the police gave her said that she wasn’t a good Muslim because she had worn the slightly shorter manteau.

Later I found out from Cyrus Etemadi, a 68-year-old Tehran tour company owner, that it’s only been five years since the chador was not required. This all-covering black cape was once what every woman had to wear, now the scarves move further and further back on their heads and the form fitting manteau reveal their womanly shapes without fear.

But ‘politics’ as the people here call these rules, is not interesting to any Iranian under the age of 30. They don’t watch the Ayatollah on TV or care about the absurd statements uttered about Israel and lashing out at the US by President Ahmadinejad. They speak softly and wistfully about feeling oppressed but don’t talk about voting or doing anything to change the status quo.

Age will ultimately be the decider, since the ruling mullahs are all old men, and under-25s make up three-quarters of Iran’s population.

“It’s all heading toward change,” said Etemadi, “the headscarves are moving further and further down.” In the smaller towns, no women wore anything but the chador, in Tehran, about half wore manteaus and most wore their headscarves far back. Eventually, things will be much different if trends continue.

To the Caravansary

The 400-year-old caravansary, which some day will be turned into a hotel. Now it's a place to picnic and relax.After time for some desert photos, we got back in the old bus bound for a caravansary, a fortress built 400 years ago to protect the passing camel caravans moving goods along the Silk Road. Now abandoned, there are plans to turn this large and beautiful building into a hotel. For now, it’s a good base of operations to provide hot water for tea and as a picnicking spot for Iranian families out for the day.

Everywhere on the grounds, we saw people setting up their picnic sites, firing up gas stoves, lounging on the ground enjoying puffs from hookahs and watching their little kids frolic.

The dunes in the Dasht-E-Kavir, Iran's central desert
The dunes in the Dasht-E-Kavir, Iran’s central desert

Under pine trees, a pool that’s usually filled with cooling water was empty, probably due to the onset of winter coming up soon.

Out of nowhere, our hot lunch materialized, delicious and tender chicken and rice washed down with the requisite orange soda or coke.

Eating out here on mats in the sunny desert was the best meal I’d had so far; it easily beat out the identical fare of kabobs and rice served in the buffets at the five-star hotels. The food just tasted better here, my traveling mates and I agreed.

After lunch, we drove further into the desert onto a dried out salt lake. Crystals had formed in geometric patterns. A large trailer truck filled with the chunky salt passed by. There was time to again walk far away out into the endless flat desert to relax and unwind… and more time to take off headscarves and pose for pictures snuggled up to a little closer than usual.

Enjoying a hookat at the caravansary on the former Silk Road in Iran.
Enjoying a hook at the caravansary on the former Silk Road in Iran.

Rolling Down the Dunes

But Iran’s biggest desert had more gifts for us, as we found when we stopped next to high dunes. It was getting toward sunset, the light was sharp and perfect to frame the beautiful faces of Iran’s lovely people.

Scrambling up the steep sandy face of the hilly dunes, some of us folded hands on our chests and rolled all the way down. Others set out to walk far out to the tops of the highest dune peaks. The light was perfect, that soft glow of a late fall afternoon, and we were glad we had brought along jackets to ward off the chill after sundown.

After a break for tea and cakes, we made our way back to the town square of Aran, where in the shadow of a giant mosque, lit up in bright lime green, we switched back to the comfortable modern coach. After we set out, the red curtains were drawn, and our guides selected the funkiest Iranian dance beats on the coach’s stereo.

On the way home, we closed the curtains and danced to Iranian rock music on the bus.
On the way home, we closed the curtains and danced to Iranian rock music on the bus.

To the blasting beat, one by one man and woman got up to dance, swaying seductively and smiling, defying the rules against such ungodly pleasures. No one could stop us as we rolled along in the desert, no one could see what fun we were having as we let the music move us.

Excursions to Iran’s deserts are offered by many operators in Tehran, including Aftab Kalout Eco-tour and Travel. Visit their website at or call them at 6648-8438. The cost is $33 including breakfast, lunch, tea and cakes. Departs from North Tehran on Fridays.

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