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A stop on the Silk Road


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There are some places that ooze history and few more so than the town of Yazd in central Iran. Some claim that Yazd is the oldest inhabited city on Earth and it is widely believed that Yazd has been continually  inhabited for an astonishing 7000 years. Alexander the Great is said to have been here, Marco Polo passed through, saying of Yazd that it "it is a good and noble city, and has a great amount of trade". We couldn't have put it better ourselves. Yazd has always been a stop on important trading routes, including the Silk Road, and unlike many other old cities in the region, it has been spared destruction by the Mongols (largely because of its remote, desert location). Throughout the centuries and millennia, it has been fighting the unforgiving desert, using every trick at hand. As a result, the city has unique architectural features. The setting is absolutely stunning, with the open desert and 4000 metre mountains that appear as if from nowhere as a backdrop. It is known fondly by many other names such as "Bride of the Desert", "Pearl of the Desert" and "Crossroads of Iran".

As if that wasn't enough, the desert city is also the centre of Zoroastrianism in Iran, the ancient religion whose followers used to give their dead to the animals and the main religion in Iran before the Arabian conquest in the 7th century brought in Islam. In short, there is plenty to explore in Yazd and it was hence a given stop on our tour of Iran.

Our Yazd adventure started already in Esfahan. When Fatemeh and Ali heard we were heading to Yazd, they offered to show us around the city where they had grown up. As if that wasn't enough, they insisted on picking us up in Esfahan and giving us a lift to Yazd - a six hour drive. During our two days in Yazd, Fatemeh and Ali showed us around, took us for meals, and invited us to their parents house for lunch.  We can not stress it enough - if there was a world championship in hospitality, the Iranians would win, thanks to people like Fatemeh and Ali.

On the long, flat road to Yazd

Ali showing us the old Narein Castle in Meybod, outside Yazd - like most other old structures around here, built of mud

Yazd is full of fantastic historic accommodation. The "khan-e sonnati" are traditional houses that have been turned into hotels. We had booked ourselves into the Silk Road Hotel and were not disappointed when we arrived. A beautiful courtyard surrounded by the different rooms - just what you want when you are stopping on the Silk Road!

Silk Road Hotel - an atmospheric stay along the road it has taken its name from

The hotel was full of travellers and even a few Westerners. There were even two Swedes there, a father and his daughter. The father's accent gave him away -  it transpired that he originally was from Sollefteå, hence practically a neighbour! 

As mentioned, Yazd is full of historical hotels and while ours was more of a budget option, there are plenty of options for those who want to spend a bit more (still being very reasonably priced) and stay in more luxurious khan-e sonnati. A VIP suite in one of the top hotels will cost you USD 150 per night. This place should be packed with tourists!!

A recurring experience during our tour was that Ali and Fatemeh would stop in front of a simple, modest door of what looked like a simple, modest building and say "let's go in and have a look here!". We would follow, not really knowing what to expect and then suddenly we would find ourselves in the most beautiful courtyards, surrounded by lovely hotel rooms. Yazd really is full of surprises and thanks to our guides, we got to see a lot of these hidden treasures.

Now this might not look massively impressive from the outside...

...but inside it is a completely different story

Touring the hotels was also a good opportunity to look at one of the famous features of Yazd - the ancient and ingenious air conditioning systems. Being in the desert, there was always a need for a cooling system. In Yazd, they constructed wind catchers ("badgirs") that would collect the desert breeze and channel it down to cool water basins, then circulate around the building. It still functions and it's completely environmentally friendly - how cool is that! The towering wind catchers are part of what gives Yazd its distinct look and yet another nickname: "The City of Badgirs".

The Yazd ancient air conditioning system

A wind catcher/tower

Yazd is a city full of atmosphere, and we really enjoyed wandering the narrow streets of mud architecture, feeling like nothing there had changed for thousands of years. We also walked through the old bazaar and saw the squares where the caravans used to arrive with their camels and goods. We also noticed that Yazd felt much more traditional than Tehran. Most women were dressed in long black veils and many also covered their faces when walking the streets. We probably shouldn't be surprised that the capital feels much more modern than the rest of the country.

The streets of Yazd

Sadly some of the shops are not in use anymore, it's been a while since any bike was repaired in this shop

Iranians love their nan (yes, same word as in India) 

And these are the pans on which you make one kind of nan

We stopped into a Hamam (bath) that has been converted into a restaurant - again, didn't look much from the outside but inside, massively impressive - the light passing through the coloured glass in the cupula is reflected back off the water and onto the ceiling

It wouldn't be sightseeing in Iran without visiting a mosque. We went to the beautiful Jameh mosque where we got into conversation with  an Iranian documentary film team, who were filming a "drama documentary" about a holy man. They were extremely friendly and very happy to see foreign tourists in Iran.

In Jameh mosque with the Iranian TV team

The Zoroastrians

While feeling more conservative than Tehran, it is also said about Yazd that it is more tolerant thanks to being the centre of Zoroastrianism. We admit that we didn't know much more about Zoroastrianism before than that it existed. Now we know a bit more. It is believed to be the first monotheistic religion, founded in Iran around 3500 years ago. It has influenced Judaism, Christianity and Islam (and the three wise men are believed to have been zoroastrians). As mentioned, it was the dominating religion in Iran until the 7th century. One remnant of Zoroastrianism in the Iranian society today is the Iranian new year, when Iranians jump over fire. 

Today, there are estimates that there are around 200 000 Zoroastrians in the world, of them around 5000 in Yazd.  However, the real number both globally and Iran could be higher as many keep their faith a secret.

The woman on the left is Zoroastrian, which you can tell from her type of clothing

Zoroastrian morality is summarised in: "good thoughts, good words, good deeds", good transpiring for those who do righteous deeds. Those who do evil have themselves to blame for their ruin. Their god is Ahura Mazda. 

The Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda

Of the four elements, fire is the most important to Zoroastrians and they usually pray in the presence of fire. In Yazd we visited one of the Zoroastrians most holy sites, the Fire Temple. The fire is believed to have burnt for more than 1,500 years.

The Zoroastrian Fire Temple in Yazd

The very old fire

The purity of the elements is very important for the Zoroastrians and therefore they would not bury nor burn their dead, as it would contaminate the soil and the air respectively and "spoil the good creation". Instead they would put the dead bodies on high towers called "The Towers of Silence" and feed them to the birds. This tradition ended in the 1960s (yes, health and safety legislation seems to extend even to Iran!). Now their dead are instead buried in special, lime mortar-sealed cemeteries.  

The view from the Yazd Towers of Silence is impressive, which admittedly would have been wasted on those who occupied the towers. Today it is totally deserted. There is no museum, no entrance fee, and anybody can visit but still we were the only tourists there. A recurring feature in Iran but nonetheless  sad for such an extraordinary sight.

On the way up to one of the Towers of Silence

Ali and Helena

Ali and Grant

Impressive views!

Our last day in Yazd had quite a busy schedule. In addition to our Zoroastrain sightseeing, we were also invited for lunch at Fatemeh and Ali's parents' house, with some of their friends. Just like the previous week in Tehran, Fatemeh cooked for us. The food was delicious and plentiful, and we had lots of laughs.

Lunch in Yazd

Ali showing the impressive watering system in his father's garden - this is the first garden in the neighbourhood to receive ice cold water from an underground well before it flows on to neighbouring properties

Fatemeh and her father

Tea in the garden

A trip to the desert

We couldn't come so close without properly going to the desert. Together with a Swiss couple staying at the same hotel, we booked ourselves in on a desert tour which would include camel riding and sunset over the sand dunes. Fabienne and Ruedi were three months into their cycling tour - going from Switzerland to Mongolia along the Silk Road! We were obviously massively impressed while perhaps not so jealous. They are far from the only travellers doing this and mentioned many cyclists they kept bumping into along the way. In addition to exchanging travelling stories, we talked about stupid people mixing up Switzerland and Sweden.

The excursion, however, could have ended before it had even started when our car suddenly got a puncture. A quick check confirmed what we suspected - no spare tyre. Our driver insisted on driving on until what was left of the tyre suddenly rolled out in front of the car. It was definitely time to stop.

Puncture along the highway in the desert

Our guide/driver couldn't have handled it any better. Within 20 minutes we were in a taxi with a driver who knew where to drop us and our guide would join us later with the car.

We arrived at a tiny village in the middle of the sand dunes and without our guide we had no means of communicating with the villagers. He had obviously phoned them up as they quickly found a few camels for us and off we were!

Camel ride in the desert

Our fellow tourists for once in a camel saddle rather than a bike saddle

Next up was the sunset. We had been warned that the sky might not be clear due to "sand from Iraq" but it was clear enough. We trekked up the highest dune and sat and enjoyed a  beautiful sunset before drinking a cup of tea and heading back to Yazd, where the night bus waited to take us to our next destination.

Scenes from the sand dunes from where we watched sunset

Posted by Grantandhelena 05:27 Archived in Iran

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Yet another really interesting read and so much information in this blog! What fantastic hospitality from Fatemeh and Ali - obviously very kind people and so keen to show you their country. Happy shopping for your last few days in Tehran! xx

by Anne and Bill

You are experiencing the most amazing and interesting phenomena. It must depend on your initiative and curiosity. Nothing seems to be uninteresting. What stories! And to get close to the people, talking with them, visiting them and sharing their food must be an added bonus to everything you see.

by Gunhild & P G

Thnkyou very very much your brilliant report !
I have no word. I can not description my poignant. Thank you again to Grant and Helena.

by fumihiro Takaki

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