Or so we were told time and time again by incredulous Iranians. In fact, it’s not so bad, made all the easier by the friendly people, who will do all they can to help you out. Public baths – hammams – in each town make wild camping much more palatable. Just watch out for the traffic, which sometimes goes too fast on the long, straight roads.
Duration: 10-12 days
Terrain: Many flat stretches through the desert, separated by long and gently graded ridges, then flat farmland until Kashmar. A challenging climb and rewarding descent follows to Neyshabur. The last section to Mashhad starts out flat but changes about halfway through into rolling hills.
Accommodation: Mostly wild camping with the possibility to take a hotel in Yazd, Tabas, Neyshabur and Mashhad. A mosque in Saghand offers basic rooms for an equally basic price. You can set your tent up at various rest stops along the way. There are campsites for pilgrims, where you’re also welcome, in Neyshabur and Mashhad.
Highlights: The gorge between Kashmar and Neyshabur is the scenic highlight of the trip. Irrigation canals are a pleasant surprise in the middle of the desert, giving you a chance to freshen up and camp with the luxury of running water.
Lowlights: Busier roads than we expected, although we were travelling during Iranian New Year, and repeated passport checks by police in small towns and villages.
Tips:Find the local hammam when you arrive in a town. It’s a great way to wash up and cheap too. Bring empty plastic bottles to carry extra water for the long, isolated stretches. A tarp is handy for instant shade in the desert. Otherwise, bridges also make a cool resting place.
Section 1 – Yazd to Kharanaq (85km)
Take Enghelab Street northwest out of Yazd. The road is completely flat and quite busy until you reach the turnoff for Tabas at about 25km, although there’s a shoulder for most of it. There’s a small shop at the turnoff but it was closed when we passed. You can get water here but it doesn’t taste very nice, the first of many salty water taps to come.
Working your way towards Kharanaq, the road stays broadly flat with some gently graded slopes. About 10km before Kharanaq are a few abandonned buildings that might give cover for the night as well as a break in the mountains, where you could possibly ride your bike behind a large rocky outcrop. There aren’t too many other places that would give enough cover to hide your tent without pulling off the road a considerable distance, something that could be difficult in the often sandy soil.
Coming into Kharanaq on a nice downhill run, the first thing you come to is a police checkpoint. The cops are happy to let you stay for the night alongside their station. This is a noisy option but one that comes with as much good drinking water as you like, a real treasure in this part of the world. About 500 meters beyond the police station is a rest stop with a small supermarket selling a few basics. There is a bakery in the village selling delicious bread.
Section 2 – Kharanaq to Saghand (70km)
It’s mostly downhill out of Kharanaq for a few kilometers but once you hit the railway tracks the fun ends and you have to start climbing, albeit at a grade so gentle sometimes it’s hard to tell you’re climbing at all. About 10km before Saghand the road starts sloping downhill again.
There are no services or water points between Kharanaq and Saghand, only a lone telephone about 35km from Kharanaq. Otherwise you’ll have to be self-sufficient, waving down passing motorists if you run out of water.
You could wild camp anywhere out here as long as you can find the cover, which does occasionally pop up in the form of small hills and the like by the side of the road. The relatively luxurious option is to carry on to Saghand where there’s a shrine built for a relative of Imam Reza. It has several rooms for travellers at 40,000 Rials for the room per night. The rooms are unfurnished but the caretaker can supply mattresses and blankets if needed and the bathrooms offer a welcome chance to scrub up. Saghand is a stopping point for buses so there are small food stands here selling a variety of tinned goods, eggs, cheese, nuts, yogurt and cold drinks.
Section 3 – Saghand to Robat-e-Posht Badlam (65km)
You may notice a familiar theme here: like yesterday, there’s nothing between Saghand and Robat-e-Posht Badlam so bring adequate supplies of food and water. The journey starts with a downhill run, then a flat stretch and then a slow ascent. The last 10km into Robat-e-Posht Badlam is downhill so you can look forward to that.
A nice break from the empty landscape is a beautiful caravanserai 25km outside of Saghand, marked on some maps as Karvansara-ye-Shah Abbasi. You can’t miss it on the right hand side of the road. It’s a great place for a break or perhaps to spend the night if you don’t want to stay at the shrine in Saghand, although from tracks in the sand it seems people do show up here occasionally. If you decide to tent here, it might be best to set your tent back in some of the further reaches of the site.
Approaching Robat-e-Posht Badlam, the first thing you come to is a rest area where you can use the bathrooms, make a phone call, buy petrol or even spend the night. It can get pretty noisy here though and the water tastes horrible. An alternative is to move your tent to one of the nearby abandonned ruins and return to the rest stop in the morning for the bathrooms.
The shops at the rest stop are expensive so avoid buying things here if you can help it. A better idea is to head into the town, where you can also get decent drinking water. Find the bakery on the right in the centre of town (across from the only small corner shop and restaurant). The bakery is on the corner of the main road and a side street. If you walk down the side street there’s a small triangular park with a few newly planted trees where the road splits. Behind that is a tap with good drinking water. As it happens, the bread at the bakery is excellent and heavily subsidised so it’s worth picking some up.
Section 4 – Robat-e-Posht Badlam to Tabas (165km)
This section is the longest stretch without any towns, although there are semi-regular water points. Heading out of Robat on the main road, you can gather a nice bit of momentum through the rolling hills before things flatten out for a long stretch to come. Around the 40km mark is a mosque, built on the spot where some American planes crashed during the revolution. You can get cold water here from tanks and wander over to the site of the crash, where there’s a large mural depicting a war martyr. The landscape starts to become noticably sandy around this point.
Carrying on, you’ll find water again around the 80km mark at a medical emergency station. Some 65km from Tabas, you go up a large hill and then a nice downhill begins again. It’s around this point at the top of the hill that some nice wild camping spots start to reveal themselves. About 5km after the peak, keep your eyes open for what looks like a large gravel pit on the right hand side as you fly down the hill. Way back in one corner you’ll see a small brick building, a night resting place for two local wardens who keep an eye on illegal hunting of wildlife in the desert. They were gracious hosts for us and we are sure they’d be happy to have you as their guests too. There’s always fresh drinking water here and a simple bathroom.
The remaining distance to Tabas is split between rolling hills and a salt-encrusted plain. To get to the town centre you need to turn right off the main road and go around the large mosque. If you stay on the main road you end up on the ring road around the town. There are hotels here but equally plenty of wild camping if you carry on out of the town later. There’s also a hammam on the main Imam Khomeni Street. Ask someone to direct you to it. It’s 5,000 Rials for a shower in your own private cubicle. Bring your own towel and shampoo.
Section 5 – Tabas to Eshq Abad (110km)
Leaving Tabas, prepare yourself once again for a long distance without any supplies. The terrain starts out flat but then slopes gently upwards. About 10km out of Tabas, keep a lookout for the first of two irrigation canals. The second follows roughly another 10km later. If the water is running here, they make ideal camping spots. We’re not sure if the water is potable or not but you can certainly do some washing and make tea with it. If you want to drink the water, be on the safe side and use a filter or other treatment first.
The road runs through what is marked as Azmighan on our map but there’s no village here that we saw. The road climbs slowly uphill for some distance until you descend to the crossroads at Deh Mohammad around the 70km mark. Here there are shops, a bakery and a police post where they may want to check your passports.
The signs here point both ways for Mashhad. Make a left turn onto the quieter and shorter of the two routes. It’s quite flat so providing there’s no head wind you can make good time. There’s a small cafe and shop around 20km before Eshq Abad, a nice place for lunch and you can refill your water bottles and use the bathrooms here too. In Esh Abad you have a good selection of shops and a petrol station, the last major centre for some time as you are about to traverse the last section of desert.
Leaving Eshq Abad there is a mosque and some shops, a good place for a break but the water here is salty so it’s useless for refilling your bottles. You may have no choice in this region but to buy bottled water if you want something drinkable.
Section 6 – Eshq Abad to Anabad (145km)
As usual, there’s very little for the first leg out of Eshq Abad, just the village of Ozbek Kuh off to the side of road around the 40km mark. The slightly bigger town of Tappeh Taq has a few shops on the road appears at the 70km mark and if you stop here you’re likely to get your passports checked by the police. The officers told us the last time they’d seen cyclists through here was sometime last year!
The route is largely flat for the first 50km, then it gradually works its way upwards until just before Tappeh Taq. Here the road heads back down again and you can enjoy a long descent through noticably greener fields than on the other side of the ridge. Around the 100km mark you come to a T-junction at Salehiyeh. Here there’s a small restaurant which made us a very nice egg and rice dish for a filling lunch. They also offer chicken and lamb with rice. After you turn right at the T-junction, the area is dominated by lush green fields and irrigation channels. There aren’t many villages until you reach Anabad.
Section 7 – Anabad to Kashmar (60km)
This stretch is fairly unremarkable. A string of towns keeps traffic steady but at least there’s a good shoulder and you can buy all you want from the shops, making up for the lack of services over recent days. There’s plenty of fresh fruit and other goodies on offer, particularly in Kashmar, the nicest and best kept of the towns in the area. If you need a place to camp, find a field and just start heading back on the dirt tracks until the traffic noise from the road dies down. No farmer will mind you pitching a tent for the night as long as you don’t damage his crops. It was in this area that we picked up our only police escort of the trip; very annoying although the officers themselves were friendly enough. Thankfully they got bored reasonably quickly and only followed us for a short time.
Section 8 – Kashmar to Neyshabur (125km)
In Kashmar, turn north out of the town, cycling past a busy shrine and into the hills for what we thought was the most beautiful stretch of the trip. For the first 25km to the peak you’ll see families out in their dozens, having picnics by the stream that runs through the gorge. The best camping spots, however, come about 5km before the peak where a park on the left has a trail extending far back into the mountains (go about 500m back past an irrigation pool and you’ll find a running stream), and on the other side of the summit where the hills open up a bit more.
Coming down the other side of the mountain you quickly reach Rivash, the only town of size for some distance although there are quite a few villages along the route so you should never be far from at least a small shop. In Rivash you can get petrol and there’s a bakery if you arrive early in the morning (most bakeries tend to close by 8am).
Leaving Rivash, there are a series of rolling hills with sometimes steep climbs – exhausting cycling – but once you get through those it’s downhill all the way to Ata’iyeh, by which time the road has leveled out and remains mostly flat into Nyshabur. The best camping is certainly in the mountains as you’re gliding downhill. Their red colour is beautiful. Once you come out into the plain the scenery is far more ordinary and there aren’t many many hiding places for your tent.
The road leads you straight into Neyshabur, a town famous as the home of the poet Omar Khayyam. You’ll find his mausoleum set in a garden on the edge of town. Before you go there, however, you may want to scrub up at a hammam. There are several in the city but perhaps the most convenient is close to the restored caravanserai in the town centre, just down the street from the caravanserai and on the opposite side of the road. The friendly owners will even let you roll your bike inside for security as you take your shower. There are hotels here in Neyshabur as well and a campsite for pilgrims going to Mashhad.
Section 9 – Neyshabur to Mashhad (130km)
The last section of your trip is almost certainly the most drab but if you’re set on going to Mashhad there aren’t many choices from Neyshabur. It’s a case of just getting on the motorway, putting your head down and notching off the kilometers on the wide and well-surfaced shoulder. There are a reasonable number of towns and villages along the way but to get a quiet place to camp you’ll have to go off road a bit.
We can recommend the village of Fakhr-e-Dawood, about 60km down the motorway, as one good place to stop for the night. There are a couple stores and a bakery in the friendly village. If you find the bakery (turn right, cycling in front of the restored caravanserai, and take the first road to your left in the second half of the village), keep going on the same side street to the back of the village and turn right until you’re past the houses and into farm fields. Back there you’ll find a quiet place to lay your head down.
After Fakhr-e-Dawood and the new city of Binalud (so new it’s not yet on many maps) the road rises a bit more and then you’ve got a great downhill all the way to the toll section of the highway. Here you have a chance to take the old road to Mashhad, which may be quieter but potentially a little harder work with rolling hills from the little we saw of it. We continued on the highway (ignoring the signs banning bicycles) and were quickly able to breeze through the remaining kilometers to Mashhad. There are a few rolling hills but you get such nice momentum off the descents that the climbs aren’t hard work at all.
After the toll section of the highway ends, you’ve got a good additional 10 kilometers to the centre of Mashhad and this is full-on cycling. Mashhad drivers don’t have a good reputation and they didn’t do much to improve it when we arrived. Take care negotiating the tangled mess of busy roads to the shrine and ask directions if you need to. There is a surprising lack of signs on the outskirts directing you to the city centre.
In Mashhad, most hotels are on Imam Reza Street. We stayed in Alborz Hotel (Phone 859 5761, formerly known as Taranom Apartment Hotel), on a small lane to the right as you’re facing the shrine, just as you approach the last roundabout before the shrine. Look for a Bank Melli on the corner of the lane where the hotel is located. The rooms are basic and could use some renovation but staff do keep them nice and clean. Rooms with toilet and shower cost for 120,000 Rials for a double and 150,000 Rials for a triple. Guests can use the kitchens located on each floor.
Vali Homestay (277 Enqelab Eslami 6, Bhar street) gets excellent reviews from cyclists, although we didn’t have the chance to check it out personally. It costs 90.000 rials, with shared bath, breakfast and dinner included. Apparently the cooking of Vali’s wife is quite something to behold.
For internet, we can recommend Khayyam Internet Cafe, near the Tehran Hotel on Imam Reza Street. It opens at 8am and closes at 4am. Internet costs 6,000 Rials per hour for a speedy connection.