Cycling from Shiraz to Yazd takes you past some of the finest archaeological sites in Iran, if not the entire the Middle East.
There’s also the Abarkuh desert to enjoy before you reach the relaxed city of Yazd with its wonderful budget hotels, Zoroastrian culture and one of Iran’s largest mosques. Yazd is also a great place to buy that Persian silk carpet or kilim you’ve had your eye on…
Duration: 7 days
Terrain: Rolling hills coming out of Shiraz and a climb to 2,500 meters before you descend into the flat Abarkuh desert.
Accommodation: Hotels in Shiraz as well as at Persepolis, at the junction with the road to Yazd, in Taft and of course in Yazd itself. Chance to stay with an Iranian champion cyclist partway through the route! Wild camping otherwise and there’s plenty of space.
Highlights: The numerous archaeological sites including Persepolis and Pasagarda.
Lowlights: Busy roads, which can be heavy on truck traffic.
Tips: Leave lots of time to explore the many historical sites.
Section 1 – Shiraz to Persepolis (60km)
Head north out of Shiraz on the main highway towards Marvdasht. This stretch is busy but there are few alternatives. You may be tempted by a long loop towards Persepolis via Dariyan but local cyclists warned against this route. Apparently a cycle tourist was robbed of his camera on this road last year. Although it’s busy, the road to Marvdasht has a decent shoulder most of the way and the vehicles tend to give you plenty of space. Take the exit marked for Marvdasht and follow the signs to Persepolis (entry 5,000 Rials), which goes directly through the town centre. As you come up the tree-lined boulevard to Persepolis you’ll pass a “tourist complex” which offers camping and beds for the night but there’s no need to pay for accommodation The security guards at Pardis Garden (directly to the right as you reach the Persepolis entrance) are more than happy to let you camp in the grounds where the Shah used to hold his parties. There’s access to water and toilets at Persepolis. We also had invitations to spend the night with a family living in a nearby village.
Section 2 – Persepolis to Sa’adat Shahr (75km)
Leaving Persepolis, you don’t need to return to the main road. Instead, take the road directly opposite Pardis Garden (to the left if facing Persepolis), cycle through the parking lot and out the far corner. You’re then on a small road which soon rejoins the old road to Esfahan. The traffic here is still steady but less than the main highway and downright quiet in parts. As you join the old road, you’ll notice a gated area and ticket office on your right. This is Naqsh-i-Rajab (entry 2,000 Rials) and features a few rock reliefs. Directly across from this site is the road leading to the much more interesting Naqsh-i-Rustam (entry 3,000 Rials) where the tombs of Darius II, Artaxerxes I and Darius the Great are carved high into the rock face. Retrace your steps to the old Esfahan road and turn left to continue on your way. It’s worth a brief stop 3km on at Istakhr, where there was once a temple to Anahita. The site is largely in ruins now but it’s free to enter and you may find ancient pottery shards under your feet as you explore what’s left of the columns. From here the road gets progressively quieter. You can pick up provisions in Seydan and Sivand. It can be difficult to find a hidden spot to camp in this area as much of the route is flanked by steep mountains on one side and flat farming fields and a river on the other. We were allowed to put our tent up beside the police station in Sa’adat Shahr which was noisy but did come with the benefit of a hot shower in the morning!
Section 3 – Sa’adat Shahr to Safa Shahr (90km)
Unfortunately the main road rejoins the old road at Sa’adat Shahr so you have a stretch of heavy traffic but the shoulder here is wide and in good condition for riding. About 20km outside Sa’adat Shahr several signs mark the turn-off for Pasagarda (entry 3,000 Rials), one of Iran’s top archaeological sites next to Persepolis. There is a restaurant at the turn-off. Another nice idea is to pick up food from one of the many shops as you approach the site and then picnic under the trees at Pasagarda itself. The site doesn’t have as much to see as Persepolis but it is quite widespread so allow over an hour to wander around. There are clean toilets and drinking water at the entrance. Shortly after returning to the main road and continuing on your way, you come to the turn-off for Qader Abad (spelled Gaderabad on some signs). On our map this turn-off is marked as the main road but in fact it’s the opposite. Both roads involve a fair bit of climbing so you might as well take the right bearing fork into Qader Abad and enjoy some relief from the trucks. After filling your panniers and water bottles in Qader Abad, it’s about 30km before you rejoin the main road. There are no villages or even houses for most of the way. With the desolate landscape it shouldn’t be hard to find a place for your tent but we found a good spot just 2km before you return to the main highway. A dirt road leads off to the right (near where a restaurant stands on the left) and a few hundred meters down the dirt road is an abandoned turreted castle and house, both made of mud and straw. Around the far side of the castle a little track leads back into the fields where a few trees and marsh grasses hide you from view. Birds will sing you to sleep here and there’s a stream as well providing extra water if you need it. Scenic and fun to imagine what the property might have once been used for. The yard of the house is now overgrown with old grape vines. Once back on the main road, it’s a hilly 20km to Safa Shahr with its many shops and services, including internet cafes and bakeries.
Section 4 – Safa Shahr to Surmaq (70km)
Leaving Safa Shahr, there’s the choice of a dirt road leading via Heneshk and towards Abarkuh – shorter but condition unknown – or the busy main road. We took the second option and here a series of ups and downs takes you steadily higher to a peak of 2,500 meters about 30km on from Safa Shahr. A Red Crescent station at the top can refill your water bottles and then it’s a stonking downhill run towards Surmaq, with plenty of ridges and old castles to pull behind for the night if you wish. There are two appealing options if you continue on. The first comes about 2km before Surmaq and the turn-off to Yazd. Look for an extensive farm of grape vines and fruit and nut trees on your right, before the large silo. The main yard of the farm is walled with a blue gate and “welcome” painted on the wall. This is the home of Sassan Izadi, who before you even reach his home may find you and implore you to stop for the night with his family. Sassan was a medal-winning Iranian racing cyclist in his day and now he’s a “tourist hunter” who would love nothing more than for you to spend the evening with him. His impressive guestbook says a lot about the hospitality he’s offered visitors over the past two decades and his father is also a character to remember; a sprightly 82 years old and one of the former Shah’s secret police! Both speak good English. If for some reason you can’t find Sassan, just ask around. He’s well known in the area. The second option (and undoubtedly a quieter one if you don’t fancy socialising) is the Hotel Touristy just past Sassan’s farm but before the turn-off We haven’t been in but it’s apparently new and charges about 100,000 Rials for a room.
Section 5 – Surmaq to Deh Shir (110km)
Traffic dies down once you take the turn-off towards Yazd, although the trucks still rumble by reasonably often. After a downhill stretch you reach Abarkuh, the only town of any size for quite some time. It can’t offer accommodation but there are plenty of shops here and some interesting architecture. Look for the beehive structures as you enter the town. Water was let into them at night in the winter to freeze into ice and then be packed away in straw for use in warmer weather. Going straight through Abarkuh, the villages slowly trickle out until you enter the flat and empty road through the desert. Ensure you have lots of water and food as there is nothing for a good 50km and very little shade if you’re cycling in hot weather. Only the odd abandoned castle breaks up the long stony plain. The only way to wild camp discretely here will be to walk so far out on the plain that you disappear into the horizon, unless you manage to stop near one of the rare abandoned buildings. About 15km before Deh Shir there is a police point, a small shop and village. In Deh Shir itself there’s a larger police station (which we camped behind – not beautiful by any means but it served the purpose), a few shops and tea stops mainly used by the truckers.
Section 6 – Deh Shir to Yazd (100km)
The road climbs steadily out of Deh Shir until you reach the peak about 22km later. After that it’s an all downhill ride to Yazd so sit back and enjoy. There’s little to see, although the mountain scenery is nice enough. If you want to spend the night on this stretch, one option is an abandoned castle on your left with a stream running nearby about 5km out of Deh Shir. Otherwise, anywhere in the empty landscape will do once you get a few kilometers into the climb up the mountain. There are plenty of dips to hide behind and even the occasional grove of trees. After Deh Shir there aren’t many shops or places to get water until you reach Taft. A gas station appears around the 45km mark.
Coming into Yazd, follow the well marked signs to the city centre. When you pass the bazaar in the old city, take a left on the corner where a large Melli Bank stands and go down the small street towards the imposing Jameh Mosque. Near the end of the street, near the mosque, you’ll see signs painted on the wall for the Silk Road Hotel, the most popular hotel for foreign travellers in Yazd, although the Kohan Hotel is also popular and is said by some to have better dorms.