Iran: Bandar-e Abbas & Hormoz

October 2003


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My journey continued from Bam to the Persian Gulf coast and the busiest port in the country, Bandar-e Abbas. From Bam there is only one direct bus to Bandar-e Abbas a day, which leaves in the middle of the night. Mr Akbar recommended travelling during the day taking share taxis and local busses from town to town, as the scenery along the way to the coast is spectacular. A day earlier Mr Akbar offered me a lift as far as Jiroft as he was going there to meet some friends, but I declined wanting to spend an extra day in Bam instead. So early on this Thursday morning I waited by the Restaurant Arg 2000 traffic circle for a share taxi to fill up for the journey to Jiroft. I didn't have to wait for long, there were plenty of people setting off on journeys early in the morning and soon I was squeezed into the back of a Paykan with four other passengers and was on my way south to the coast.

As we left Bam we passed a couple of Japanese cyclists who had stopped in Bam for a night, the only cyclists I met who were heading towards Europe and winter. The taxi soon turned off the main Bam to Kerman road and headed south, the road stretching straight across the desert to the dramatic mountain range of Kuh-e Jebal Barez. From here the road twisted its way through the rugged mountains passing small, traditional villages perched on the mountainsides and green valleys and small-cultivated fields. The views were some of the best I'd seen so far on my trip through Iran and I thought of Mr Akbar and his advice about travelling this route in daylight; he was definitely right. It didn't take long to reach Jiroft where after a quick argument with the driver over the fare, again I was charged the 'tourist rate', I found another taxi for the next leg of my journey to Kahnuj. The road from Jiroft left the mountains behind and continued over flatter desert terrain. I was squeezed into the front seat of the taxi next to the window with another passenger between the young driver and me. I began to notice the temperature rise as the sun rose higher into the sky and we drove further south through the desert. The wind blowing in through the windows began to feel hot and I soon began to doze off in the heat listening to the hypnotic Koran readings on the radio.

When we arrived in the larger town of Kahnuj I asked the driver to drop me off somewhere where I could catch a local bus for the final, and longest leg of my journey today, to Bandar-e Abbas. The driver stopped along the main, four-laned road in the centre of town and pointed across the road where a couple of local busses, some taxis and a crowd of people were gathered and said, 'Bandar-e Abbas.' After waiting no more than a quarter of an hour on the bus I was again on my way. The journey and my connections today were working far better than I could of ever hoped for and it now looked like I would be arriving at my destination by early afternoon. As we continued south the heat continued to build until it became almost unbearable and extremely uncomfortable in the stuffy, cramped bus. The scenery had again changed and now resembled nothing more than a wasteland; there was no longer any beauty of the previous deserts and mountains I had travelled through from Bam. Along all the roads in Iran are police checkpoints and the road to Bandar-e Abbas had the most rigorous police checks I came across on my whole trip around the country. As well as Bandar-e Abbas being the busiest port in the country it is also the biggest port for smugglers, a problem the police are well aware of. At the checkpoints as we were all lined up beside the bus in the searing heat to have our papers checked. I looked very much out of place, the only white face amongst a group of approximately two dozen other passengers, a mix of local Iranians, Pakistanis, Afghans and women wearing veils and chadors. As we waited patiently in the heat the police thoroughly searched our bus for any contraband before letting us continue on our way.

At 13.00 we arrived in the bustling, modern, concrete suburbs of Bandar-e Abbas and were dropped off on an anonymous street some distance from the centre of town. I joined four other passengers from the bus and chartered a taxi downtown. It took a while to gain my bearings as we travelled for some distance along a large, busy road. Eventually we crossed a small river and then passed a stadium, I could now pinpoint where I was on a photocopy of a street map I had in my pocket. The taxi dropped us at 17 Shahrivar Square, from where I began walking to find a cheap hotel. I didn't walk far until I found sweat dripping from me uncontrollable, quickly soaking my t-shirt and trousers. The heat and humidity by the coast was intense and almost unbearable, very different from the dry heat of the inland deserts I had become used to. I walked up to Asad Abadi Street looking for the Hotel Hormozgan but walked straight past it, missing the small, faded sign written in English. Eventually the owner of a small barbershop helped me out and pointed out the hotel for me. I wondered how I had managed to miss it, as it was exactly where my map said it was; I blamed the sudden, crushing heat of the coast for my lapse of concentration and failure of navigation.

The Hotel Hormozan was definitely a cheap and tatty option in a modern but rundown concrete building. Next-door is the Safa Hotel, which had recently bought the Hormozan; this explained why the hotel didn't live up to my expectations after reading a review of it in my guidebook. I took a room without air-conditioning; it was noisy as it overlooked the main street and the wobbly ceiling fan made a noise resembling that of a helicopter coming in to land. I rested for a while before heading out to explore my new surroundings.

Bandar-e Abbas is a large town with a population of 360,000 and has a history dating back to 1622 when Shah Abbas I founded it; today nothing remains of this history except it's name. In recent times, during the Iran, Iraq war, when it was considered too dangerous for shipping to reach the ports further north along the coast, Bandar-e Abbas became the major port along the northern shores of the Gulf. There has been a lot of investment in expanding and improving the port facilities here. There is a diversely mixed population living in the port town, including minorities of Arabs, black Africans and a small community of Hindus who have a temple in the centre of town next to Velavat Square.

I went for a walk around the centre of town down to the jetty to check out details about boats going to Hormoz Island. From there I strolled along Taleqani Boulevard, taking a detour through the bazaar hoping for a respite from the heat under the small covered alleys. Most businesses were still closed for the siesta, which along the coast lasts from mid-day until five in the late afternoon. A little further along the boulevard beside the beach is a small park, which is supposed to be an open-air teahouse; it too was deserted, except for a couple of elderly men sleeping on sheets of cardboard under a tree. Opposite the park is a huge, drab concrete building, the unfinished mosque, which dominates the shoreline and will one day have the highest iwans in the country. I soon concluded that there is nothing in this town to do or see as a tourist, I had only come here to use the town as a base for visiting nearby Hormoz Island in the Straits of Hormoz. I returned to the hotel and cooled down in the small, air-conditioned reception room watching basketball on television.

The next day was Friday and early in the morning the town was quiet. I decided to make an early start to Hormoz Island to try and avoid the heat of the day. I left the hotel just before seven and walked the short distance to the boat jetty. Still at this early hour of the morning as I walked along the deserted streets I sweated. At the jetty there were a few people milling around and a speedboat with about eighteen passengers aboard moored along side the jetty ready to depart for Hormoz. The boat owner told me that the fare was 8,000 rials as I climbed aboard. Before I could even squeeze into a seat on the boat the owner had slipped the moorings and the boat turned around and slowly made it's way past dozens of colourful dhows moored alongside the jetty and out into the Straits of Hormoz. Once out into the open sea the outboard motor was opened up to full throttle and we hurtled across the surface of the sea towards Hormoz Island, the fibreglass hull crashing over the crests of the small waves. I hung onto my hat and scanned the horizon, looking for our destination. Gradually Hormoz Island began to appear out of the haze, a grey craggy lump of rock out in the straits. The crossing took half an hour and soon we were cruising towards the jetty by Hormoz village, mooring beside some more colourful dhows.

Hormoz Island is only 42-sq-km of mostly infertile, rocky hills baked by the intense Persian Gulf sunshine. Up until the 14th century the island was known as Jarun Island when the 15th Amir of Hormoz moved from the long established trading town of Hormoz on the mainland to escape repeated Mongol raids. The island flourished and became a major trading centre in the Gulf. It eventually attracted the interests of European traders and the Portuguese, led by admiral Afonso de Albuquerque who besieged and conquered the island in 1507 and built the fort, which was completed in 1515. This island became another Portuguese military base, along with Goa, Aden and Mozambique Island on the sea route to Malacca on the Malay peninsular. Early in the 17th century Shah Abbas I granted the British East India Company trading rights at the port of Jask. With the assistance of the English Shah Abbas I managed to seize the island from the Portuguese in 1622. He later decided that the small fishing port of Gamerun on the mainland should be the main port for Persian trade; he renamed Gamerun Bandar-e Abbas, which translated means Port of Abbas. The island quickly went into decline and within a few years reduced to ruins. Still left standing though today is the Portuguese fort at the northern tip of the island; this fort was the reason why I had travelled so far to visit this sleepy little island in the Gulf.

I walked down the jetty towards the only road, which ran along the coast to Hormoz village, a few hundred metres to the north. It had just gone 07.30 and already I could feel the heat of the day beginning to build in the still air. As I walked north towards the fort I passed young boys fishing and men repairing nets on the quay. Women stood veiled in doorways of small houses while barefoot children played in the street. Children ran across the road to greet me with, 'Hello mister, hello, hello.' The island had a relaxed pace of life, there was no traffic, the silence only broken by the occasional motorbike; not even out here could I get away from the motorbikes, the menace of Iranian streets. The smell of fish hung in the air, which felt heavy with the humidity; there was not a breath of wind and already it was feeling unbearably hot as sweat began to soak my t-shirt. I walked around the southern ramparts of the fort looking for the entrance. My search continued along the eastern walls and I finally found the gateway along the northern wall.

I entered the main gate and passed the armoury to my left and stepped into the large central courtyard. The western walls of the fort, which had also formed a barrier between the land and sea were no longer standing; all that remained was a modern concrete breakwater running through the shallows of the sea, tracing the missing outline of the fort. Today the breakwater is a popular fishing spot and young men sat patiently with their fishing lines while younger boys played, chasing each other up and down the breakwater. I admired the energy they had to be able to run in the heat and humidity; walking was my limit in conditions like this. I crossed the courtyard, following a path marked by stones through the dirt and dust and came to the underground church at the southern end. I sat for a while in the dark, cool surroundings of the church admiring the wonderfully, simple vaulted stone ceilings. It was a practical rather than an elaborate building and its simplicity had its own beauty. Some of the boys from the breakwater came across the courtyard out of curiosity to see who I was but soon lost interest and returned to sitting by the sea.

The fort was very much in ruins and looked structurally unsafe with huge cracks running up the walls. The stonework in the walls looked fairly rough, the stone was neither cut nor dressed; some of the stones were just lumps of coral. A few hundred years standing in this earthquake prone part of the world had taken its toll. Little renovation had taken place; a few walls had been repaired mostly to prevent them from totally collapsing. I climbed up onto the southern ramparts past the ground floor room of the watchtower, which was locked. Apparently there is a guardian of the fort who has keys to get into these rooms. Just past the watchtower another door lead down to the cistern, which from the accounts I have heard is quite impressive with an elevated walkway amongst the pillars; this door too was locked. From the top of the southern ramparts I stood next to a rusting canon and admired the view looking out over Hormoz village. Palm trees were dotted between the flat roofed houses and the jagged, rocky hills of the interior of the island formed a backdrop with the blue sea sparkling in the bright sunshine on either side of the peninsular. A police car drove past below me, the two police officers waved and smiled as they went past; I waved back. I hoped that if I stayed at the fort long enough the guardian might make an appearance with his set of keys.

I found a shady spot behind some battlements and sat down in the dust to rest. Lying in the dust all around me were hundreds of shards of pottery; at first glance it had looked like gravel. Upon closer inspection I found dozens of types of pottery, everything from chunky, crude looking pieces to delicately enamelled china. This for me suddenly brought the fort and the people who had lived here to life as I sat there day dreaming, wondering who had made and used this pottery and where it had come from to now lie here forgotten in the baking sun. The guardian never appeared and I never had a chance to take a look behind the locked doors. A few other visitors did arrive though, a family and a father and son. We stopped and talked; they were all from Bandar-e Abbas and were surprised to find that I had travelled here all the way from England.

By midday I succumbed to the heat and decided to return to the mainland. As I left the fort I passed the father and son, whom I had met earlier, bathing in the cooling sea, which gently lapped against the shore. They definitely had the right idea, although the water did look somewhat polluted. I walked slowly under the baking sun through the village and back to the jetty and waited for a speedboat to Bandar-e Abbas. About an hour later I was back on the mainland and walking along the bustling streets of Bandar-e Abbas and through the bazaar, where I stopped for a welcoming ice-cold bottle of Fanta. There was a huge contrast between the pace of life on the island and mainland; I was back again in the familiar, noisy surroundings of urban Iran.

I rested for the afternoon at the hotel and decided that I would make an early start the following day and take a bus to Shiraz, a journey of some 600km or ten hours on the bus. The heat and humidity of the Gulf coast was totally crushing, I had to leave. I secretly admired the people who could manage to live in this climate, and this was the cool time of the year.

I didn't sleep much that night as I lay sweating on top of my bed listening to the roar of the fan as it rotated and the noise of the traffic in the street below me until the early hours of the morning. I eventually opened my bleary eyes and peered at my alarm clock in the first grey light of the morning, it was 05.30. I packed my luggage and at 06.00 checked out of the hotel and walked along the now deserted streets looking for a taxi to take me to the bus terminal, some three kilometres east of the town centre. What happened next that morning was one of those fateful things that have you questioning yourself for days later saying to yourself, what if?

I walked along Emam Khomeini Street as far as 17 Shahrivar Square, where I waited for a passing taxi. The traffic was light, but it wasn't long until a share taxi pulled over on route to the bus terminal. The taxi was a very battered looking white Paykan; the driver wore a blue shirt and jeans and was probably in his late twenties with a bony, slim face and scraggly, black beard. I put my backpack in the boot and climbed into the front passenger street for the short journey across town; along the way the driver picked up another couple of passengers. On a quite road near the beach in the suburbs of town the driver pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. He pointed to the dashboard and the oil light and shrugged his shoulders as he grabbed a rag and stepped out of the taxi and went and opened the boot. He fiddled around in the boot for a while; I was immediately suspicious and watched as best I could in the rear view mirrors. My concern was that my backpack might 'disappear' but this street was totally deserted, not another car or person in sight. This put my mind at rest and soon the driver was around the front of the car and fiddling around under the bonnet with the engine.

I didn't think any more of this incident as we completed our short journey and I walked into the bus terminal and booked myself on an express bus to Shiraz, departing at 10.00. While I sat and waited in the rather ramshackle booking hall watching football on television I suddenly noticed that one of the side pockets of my backpack looked very empty. On closer inspection I found it was. That bloody taxi driver I thought! I couldn't quite believe it and as I still had a couple of hours to wait for my bus I decided to take a taxi back to the hotel. I just wanted to double check that I hadn't left things in my room in the rather bleary state I was in at 05.30 in the morning. Of course I hadn't but I felt better eliminating any other possibilities, it must have been that bloody taxi driver. I again found myself walking along Emam Khomeini Street, this time fighting to get a space in a taxi amongst the crowds, everyone trying to get somewhere. Suddenly I saw a man in a blue shirt driving a white Paykan drive past me. I began to chase the car but then stopped, looked around me and thought logically; 90% of cars were white Paykans and half the men seemed to be wearing blue shirts. Everyone could have been my thieving taxi suspect. I squeezed into the back of a share taxi and returned to the bus terminal to wait for my bus.

At 10.30, finally I was leaving this slightly decaying, sleazy and unbearable hot port town and was once more on the open road heading for the historic city, Shiraz. The most valuable thing the driver stole from me that morning was my water filter, which I had used on a lot of my trekking trips. I smiled to myself as I imagined this guy trying to work out what he had stolen; he is probably using it today as some sort of bizarre contraceptive device.

Continue reading this journey: Shiraz & Persepolis