You wonder where that place is? An island off Iranian southern coastline, in the strait of Hormuz. On a clear day you may even see the northern tip of Oman. A very dry place with lots of hidden gems: deep canyons, the most bizarre rock formations and stunning beaches. Qeshm Island is a duty-free zone which adds to its attraction for tons of Iranian tourists from the mainland. The culture on this 150km long island is so very different from the rest of Iran. The vast majority of its people are Sunnites, darker skinned than most Iranians and the general feel is more of an Arab country. The lack of large urban centers gives it a rather traditional rural appeal, but on the other hand it is very relaxed, especially for Iranian tourists. With authorities far away, the headscarf often slips way back, and I was frequently invited to take it off in remote places. Quesm Island is also the perfect hub for visiting smaller, nearby islands.
Travelling to and on the island
What gave me the idea to travel to such a remote place? I fancied spending Christmas in the sun, not too far away, no jetlag. An Iranian friend said try Qeshm. I booked the day before I left, the very day I got my visa. I flew in from Teheran’s local airport, so unfortunately, I had to change airports in the middle of the night, but having done this twice before it did not bother me jumping in one of these unmarked taxis with a complete stranger.
With the rising sun I flew south, eagerly checking out the area belwo from the low flying propeller plane, but I spotted nothing but desert. This did not change once we approached Qeshm and my heart sank. I asked myself what I was doing here.
Qeshm Island is connected to the mainland by ferries carrying also busses from most Iranian cities. Qeshm’s main attractions are far away from each other, so on the island itself taxis are the only option unless you have your own transport.
Home-staying in Qeshm
Nuredin was right there, waiting for me outside the airport in his white thawb, the white traditional dress of Arab men. A first hint that this was different than the Iran that I had got to know of previous trips. Leaving the terminal was like walking into a hair dryer blowing full force straight in my face, in the distance I saw fires flaring gas. It really needed a nice welcome to lift my mood. Nuredin’s lovely home is situated in the village of Dekhoda, I felt at home immediately, although my accommodation was nothing but three walls, closed off by a wooden door and a mattress on the floor. The large courtyard was so inviting that I hardly spend any time inside, but on the cozy daybeds, called takht. These are so typical for Iran and where you eat, rest or have your tea. Nuredin’s family fed me breakfast, lunch and dinner. I did not even see a restaurant, not even a shop in the dusty village. Although I must admit I did not wander around a lot, since it felt strange walking around by myself, in a place where few people walk the streets, especially not women.
I was not the only guest, a couple of European guests plus four ladies from Teheran stayed in the rooms surrounding a beautifully decorated yard. Our hosts made sure we never felt bored, either we did small trips to the village with its lovely harbor. Unforgettable a boat trip to Hara Marine Forests, a mangrove jungle, where we did some stand-up-paddling. I must admit I was not quite sure if it was even legal what we did, to ride a boat on the small inlet that ran through it, considering it is a National Park.
Intensive sweeping of the yard, carpets were rolled out announced something unusual. Nuredin’s brother had ended his military service and all the neighbors, including us guests, were invited. This was the first time I really noticed the segregation in the household. The section for us tourists was actually the men’s yard. The ladies, dressed up to the nine, adorned with jewelry and heavy make-up sat in the other yard, separated by a curtain. Loud music from the ladies’ section got me curious and I sneaked in. Well guess what, they had a lady DJ! But to my great disappointment, none of them danced, if could not figure out why. So the ladies from Teheran and I started moving to super loud Iranian tunes, but nobody joined. The ladies clapped and cheered us, but would not move to the dancefloor. I guess it was too much intrusion from strangers for them and we returned to the men’s section, where we were kindly asked to wear our headscarves, the only time we had to do this inside the house.
There some young guys played traditional instruments, small boys danced and once everybody had left, we played card games with some young guys from the village. They were super excited to hang out with us. Playing games was actually the regular past time activity in the evening.
Assad’s Homestay is (Email: firstname.lastname@example.org) where is moved next, to the super quiet village of Dulab. It was closer to the sea and more to the west of the island. Assad, his wife and daughter run the place, organize trip to nearby Chahkooh Canyon and Namakdan Salt Caves and cook delicious meals for their guests. The only downside was the small yard, my room had really beds but so many that I could only slip in and lay down.
Assad’s wife prepared delicious local specialties for me and proudly showed off her embroidery skills. Luckily a Dutch couple moved in the following day and the evenings became more social although my host tried his best to entertain me.
Hengam Island -dolphin and tourist watching
Having seen thousands of dolphins on previous trips the highlight of this little excursion were no much the dolphins but spending an afternoon with Iranian tourists on this super small island. Together with the ladies from Teheran who stayed a Nurdin’s I set off in a small boat. Soon the dolphins were all around us and the Iranians went gaga taking selfies and photos of those lovely creatures. Naturally everybody asked me where I was from and zillions of selfies were made as if I was a popstar. Equally exciting was the little fishing village on the island. The locals sell souvenirs made of seashells and more photos were taken.
Some cheeky young city city girl from Teheran took off their head scarf and wore local masks. From afar they look like a big moustache, which in the past was meant to fool potential invaders into mistaking women for men. The women in this part of Iran are also known for their brigthly colored floral chadors and niqab, which comes in two types. The mustache and a rectangular embroidered covering, protecting from the sand, wind and scorching sun.
Chahkooh Canyon and Namakdan Salt Caves
Chahkooh Canyon seemed like another world to me. The deep gorges (100m!) and the most bizarre rock formations were formed by water and wind through time. It used to be called „The Holy Valley“ as it served as a water storage when it was raining and the water was of special sacredness. They deeper I moved into the canyon the narrower it got, at one point there was a gap too small for me to move through. It looked as if the rock was cut by a lightening. I was taken around by young man, Bahman, a friend of Assad, who spoke English really well. I was so mesmerized by the landscape after our first walk that we returned for the sunset. Bahman guided me to the top overlooking a surreal landscape with the ocean forming a backdrop.
Namakdan Salt Caves
The unspectacular entrance to the vast-spread cave system is right near the ocean. The gate keeper gave us head torches, a few selfies and off we went inside the pitch-dark cavern. Soon our lamps revealed the most fascinating patterns on the walls made of salt of minerals. At one point, a salt dome could only be reached by gliding on your belly through a 30cm wide gap. We all looked at each other. The Dutch just shook their heads, I said “I go for it”, so Bahman had to join me, mumbling something about having been in the Iranian army and not being afraid of anything. I am still impressed by my courage when I look at these photos. The network pf caves is several km long, but we only visited Cave #1 which is open to the public but for visiting Cave #3 you must obtain permission from the Geopark Management.
Rushing to a New Year’s Eve Party
Back from the salt cave at Assad’s home I was happy to see that four other tourists had arrived. Seemed like we could get a little partying going with alcohol-free beer and soda, despite the chilly temperatures. All of a sudden I felt the very strong urge to be in a larger place with a chance for a REAL party. I confessed my feelings to the Dutch couple who immediately decided to join me. Although we had paid for the rooms, we jumped in a taxi heading for Queshm City three hours before midnight. The 100km (70US) we made in 1,5 hours, enough time to phone the owner of Shabhaye Talai Restaurant who also rents out two trailers. Apart from Farsi Ali speaks English and German, since he lived in Germany and is married to Annelie, a German-
The Shabhaye Talai Restaurant is right on the beach and shortly before midnight a good cheerful crowd was awaiting the New Year. Like for Nowruz, or the Iranian New Year people sent off wish lanterns into the black night. Needless to say, I wanted to do so as well. But it was not as easy as it looked and worried bystanders probably feared I would go up in flames. Well, I managed and the thing finally sailed off int the the Strait of Hormuz. I was truly happy to be a part of such a nice crowd, although it was strange to party into the New Year without alcohol. Some women started dancing, but were told to stop (which I only learned after talking to Annelie), so a handsome guy took over the dancing bit. 1st of January I woke to find out that all communication lines had been cut by the Iranian government, all of them. Continued demonstrations on the mainland led to closing down the internet. Not even the telephone was working. Next days I back online, but I refrained from posting my experience until I had left Iran.
Beach Bumming in Qeshm City
The restaurant of Ali and Annelie sits on a gorgeous, airy location overlooking the Persian Gulf near Park e Zeytoon. This makes it the best place in Qeshm City to stay, also because it had fast WIFI. I stayed in one of the spacious trailers, which only had one downside: I could hear the voices and music of the restaurants until late into the night. The days I spent reading on the comfortable daybeds sampling amazing food: lobster, fish, kebabs, steaks, pasta, anything your heart wished for.
Around Park e Zeyton is the best beach, other restaurants and even a diving school. Unfortunately, the weather did not allow any diving since the wind and the current were never right. But the Dutch couple had befriended the owner and we spent two great evenings together on the terrace of the diving school. After shopping together at a local fish market, we had yummy barbeques, devouring more local fish and shrimps.
My Dutch friends spent a lot of time on the beach on two wooden sunbeds about to break down. I could not do this without shade, but joined them on and off just to watch Iranians enjoying their holiday on the beach. Some men literally went swimming in shorts, their wives sometimes dared to get into knee deep water in their chadors, giggling and holding on the tight to their husbands.
Another pastime was strolling Qeshm City and exploring the shopping malls, where I had my favorite café. The apple store fixed my mobile found an after I paid them in US dollars, we became best friends.
Qeshm City is full of unfinished buildings, concrete skeletons of all sizes, litter the city center and the ocean front. This phenomenon I had observed in many countries, especially in Egypt many year ago. Hopes to make quick money in real estate seems a universal belief.
A short ferry ride from Qeshm City I discovered another world of surprises. The island is an orgy of colours, one beach was bright red with lots of glitter that looked like gold from the distance. I could not resist of taking a small bottle home with me. We passed beaches with bright green surf and steep cliffs dipping straight into ocean.
Also something I didn’t expect was an old Portuguese Castle going by the very Christian name “Our Lady of the Conception”. But I must confess I was not aware that the Portuguese once had control over parts oft he Persian Gulf. As a gate to the Persian Gulf, it was an important strategic place. Built in 1507 by Afonso de Albuquerque to manage localrebellions this red castle is one of the few surviving monuments from that time. The most impressive part is the old church, to enter it you need to climb down a few steps.
On Hormuz Island I rediscovered my favorite embroidery, a black grid with a golden thread woven into it that I had first seen at Assad’s house. Watching the ladies finding their way through these tiny grids was fascinating, but unfortunately it was not finished yet. Luckily, I was able to buy one later in the Valley of the Stars.
The mode of transport on the island are tuk-tuk like vehicles. Basically, it is a moped with a covered seating platform put around it. This excursion I did together with the owner of the diving school and the Dutch couple and we had such a great time. I regretted not having planned to stay at least one night, since easy and cheap accommodation was available.
is a beautifully surreal valley of untouched nature not far from Qeshm City. An awesome spot of amazing rock formations, best seen with the sun setting and dipping them in everchanging colors. I asked a local guide to take me to the top where I had the most amazing view of the valley, and of the tourists far below. The perfect time to be there is around 5-6pm, which allows enough time to get to the exit which closes at 7pm. The valley was created by water running through the valley at various speeds, resulting in twisted pillars, deep holes and narrow passages. At the tiny souvenir shop I finally found the black embroidery I had been chasing for two weeks.
Bandar Abbas – trip to mainland Iran
This pleasant town is on the mainland where also the ferry from Qeshm Island arrives. Why and how I got to travel to this port town I had never ever heard of? Leila, an Iranian friend who lives in Vienna, had followed my travel on facebook. One day she texted, “My friend Nahid is in Qeshm City, get in touch with her” and I sure did. She invited me to stay for the last two nights at her large and most comfortable flat. I was tired of my beach accommodation which was a bit chilly in the evenings and looking for a different place in the city center when Nadine called. Soon the idea to travel to Bandar Abbas together was born. The one-hour ferry ride took us through busy Clarence Strait with ships of all kinds and sizes sailing by. It felt a bit like Piccadilly Circus.
I immediately fell in love with this relaxed city. Our first stop was a “real” café, where we sipped cappuccinos. It even had a tiny X-mas tree, not uncommon in restaurants on Qeshm. A popular photo op for Iranian tourists. We explored the fish market where Nahid had the amazing variety of fish explained to us by the all-male vendors. All day we wandered around. Nahid taught me the difference between Sunnite and Shiite mosques, took me to the old bazar where we watched women buying shoes not made for walking. But also the modern shopping street with its large mosque was pleasant. We passed during the Salat al-maghrib, the prayer just after sunset,
At one point we approached a big square full of soldiers – I mentioned the demonstrations against the regime previously. Fearless we marched right through them, their reaction stunned both of us. They greeted me in the most friendly manner, “Hello madam, how are you? Welcome to Iran!” Once we passed them Nahid let go of her anger “They bust our head and with you they flirt”.
Taking back the ferry to Qeshm Island in the evening beat the trip coming to Bandera Abbas. The many lights of the huge boats passing through narrow Clarence Strait gave it a romantic touch.