Bahman Cara pickup in front of the Mashed-e Sheikh Lotfollah mosque, Isfahan.
This is the Part 2 of our exploration of Iran in a Peugeot Pars. You can see Part 1: Tehran here. Now that you are familiar with the surprisingly relaxed vibe I felt interacting with VPN-clad, WhatsApp-chatting Tehran locals, it’s time to travel to the “real” Iran, drive through the country’s immaculate highways, be shocked at petrol prices, get lost in labyrinthine bazaars and discover mosques of a beauty so striking they have no equal in the world. We are headed to Isfahan, 450 km south of the capital Tehran.
Our itinerary to Isfahan, the first highway toll booth and insanely cheap fuel
Driving south from Tehran, we speed past the Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKIA), and only need a little more than 4 hours to reach Isfahan, as Iranian highways are as smooth as in Western Europe. At Qom, we have to stop for our first toll booth, at 2 x 25,000 Rials or 0.33€. Near Kashan, it is time for our first tank refuel and a proper shock at the pump: the litre of petrol (“benzin”) is 10,000 Rials or… 0.07€. Yes this is no mistake. A full tank cost me 430,000 Rials or less than 3€! I have never bought petrol so dirt cheap, so much so t that even if it was 10 times more expensive it would still be the cheapest petrol I ever bought in my life. Travelling from Tehran to Isfahan there are only three big cities (Eslamshahr, Qom and Kashan) and absolutely nothing in between, not even small villages: it’s full-on desert plains with salt lakes. Indeed Iran is one of the most urbanised large countries in the world with 75% living in cities vs. 55% world average and much lower rates for neighbouring countries such as Pakistan (36%) Afghanistan (25%) or even Iraq 70% and at the same level as Turkey (75%). We arrive in Isfahan in the middle of the night so the city exploration will have to wait until the next day.
Mashed-e Shah and Mashed-e Sheikh Lotfollah mosques, Isfahan
I’ll make it short: if you have time to visit only one location in Iran, make it Isfahan, not Tehran, as there are also international flights landing here. The most spectacular sight in Isfahan (and in Iran) is the the Naqsh-e Jahan square dating back to 1602. At 512m-long and 163m-wide, it is one of the largest public plazas in the world and a Unesco World Heritage site, housing a number of stunning monuments. Among them, the most beautiful mosque I got to see anywhere in the world: the Mashed-e Shah, pictured above. There is a spot marked with a black stone on the ground of the mosque’s main sanctuary where a speaker produces 49 echoes throughout all buildings of the mosque. No need for a speakerphone! The Naqsh-e Jahan square also houses the Mashed-e Sheikh Lotfollah mosque, the Ali Qapu Palace – both almost as mind-blowing in the detail of their wooden and stone decorations as the Mashed-e Shah mosque – and the gate to the Bazar-e Bozorg, the largest, busiest and most colourful bazaar I got to explore in the whole of Iran. Heck, even the souvenir and craft shops filling the arched arcades on the sides of the square are interesting in themselves, filled with meticulously crafted objects.
Isfahan shade, Bazar-e Bozorg, mosque dome tile and Biryani
On top of its sumptuous monuments, what makes Isfahan so magical is its liveliness. Even though it is home to 1.76 million inhabitants, the profusion on tree-lined boulevards and Persian gardens creates a laid-back atmosphere that lingers long into the night. On Naqsh-e Jahan square at nightfall, dozens of local boys play soccer and their happy screams and laughs resonate throughout the place, blending with the prayer calls. Following the advice of my car rental company Saadat, I tried the biriyani, the food Isfahan is famous for. It is very different to what first comes to the mind of most westerners: the Pakistani biriyani. The Isfahan biriyani is made with cooked mutton/lamb, which is stewed and minced separately, and then grilled in small round shallow pans in an oven or over an open fire. It’s served with bread, leaves of mint, almond and dried barberry. So good I had it 3 times, each in a different restaurant.
Pars Khodro P.K in IsfahanPars Khodro New P.K (picture Wikipedia)
The car hero of Isfahan is the Pars Khodro P.K, aka the Iranian Renault 5. I was alerted to this oddity by Alexandra Legendre, who also commissioned 4-page spread about this adventure published in the June 2019 issue of French monthly L’Automobile Magazine. Although I fleetingly saw only one in Tehran, they are crawling the streets of Isfahan, with 6 spotted in less than 48h. They would become even more numerous north of Isfahan in Shahreza where I spotted 6 in the 10 minutes it took me to cross the town. But even the best maintained examples look out of shape with the wheels protruding from the main body (see pictures above)… So what is this Frankenstein of a car? After SAIPA then Pars Khodro manufactured the first generation Renault 5 in Iran since 1976 (none of which I saw in the entire trip), an update was launched in 2000 by mounting a Renault 5 body on a… Kia Pride platform. Hence the misaligned wheels. It was called P.K, an acronym for Pars Khodro who manufactured the car and survived until 2005 when another update, the New P.K, was launched and produced until 2013. Again I saw none during the trip but added the red Wikipedia photo above to show the difference between the two cars.
Rare orange Zamyad Z24, Iran Khodro Arisun, Bahman Cara and blue Zamyad Z24 pickups in Isfahan
Being a significantly smaller city than Tehran, small enterprises are more numerous and many artisans working here cement Isfahan’s reputation as a living museum of traditional culture. As such, pickup trucks are a lot more frequent than in Isfahan, and the most popular of them is the Zamyad Z24 – almost exclusively blue, I only saw one orange pictured above, reflecting the national sales charts. The Bahman/Mazda Cara follows, then the Iran Khodro Arisun, a Peugeot 405 pickup launched in 2017 which was very rare in Tehran but a lot more frequent in Isfahan.
Saipa Pride, Tiba 2 and Tiba in Isfahan
The Saipa Pride is the most successful car in town, with the Tiba and Tiba 2 already well established. There are also higher levels of Ssangyong Tivoli and Changan CS35.
Renault Tondar 90, Brilliance H320 and Iran Khodro Samand in Isfahan
Taxis are a lot rarer than in Tehran, and most often Iran Khodro Samand or Renault Tondar 90 (aka Dacia Logan).
This completes our exploration of Isfahan, stay tuned for Part 3 of this Iranian series further south to Shiraz!