Oasis town and invitations home from soldiers


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Middle East » Iran » East » Yazd
July 6th 2010
Published: July 11th 2010
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So I left Esfahan on a coach headed south and I knew it would get even hotter. I could already see the heat give the road and the distant mountains on either side of the motorway a purple haze.

Yazd is a very historic city, stuck in the desert between two mountain ranges -it was once an important trade route - Marco Polo stopped here on his to and fro from China in the 12th Century. It gets so hot here in the summer that there are many old wind towers - called badgirs - that capture the hot wind, cool it with water and then distribute it around a house. The old city also had plenty of sights and lots of old mosques.
Upon arrival in Yadz I got a taxi to the Old City and then walked down an alleyway to the Silk Road Hotel - a great place with an open courtyard. I asked about dormitories and the dozy bloke working there nonchalantly pointed to a dorm below ground level. There were only four beds, set in a cylinder basement room, two of which were occupied and I took it instantly.

Just as I sat down a beardy white guy came in and sat down on a bed opposite me. We got talking and he turned out to be from the south coast of England. The reason for the beard was that he and his Aussie mate were cycling from London to Tibet and then had stopped in Yazd. Long distance cycling is brilliant and I was quite envious of their adventure compared to my tame backpacking. However, they pointed out the negatives of cycling through Iran. The killer heat, the cars that overtook dangerously and at speed but also the long distances in the desert. Chris admitted that it was mentally very tough in Iran and had come very close at times to simply stopping and going home. The Aussie guy came in soon enough and we talked further about the trip and Australia and then popped out to get something to eat. We walked along the street at dusk and a guy stopped us to ask where we were from and asked if we wanted a guide in Yazd. Further along we stopped to fill up at a cold water machine that appear everywhere on streets in Iran. To no one’s surprise a bloke eventually came up to us and starting pointing and talking to us in an unintelligible language. We eventually concluded that he was an Afghan - one of many hundreds of thousands who have left and entered Iran legally or illegally. He was selling bread but we declined and then I jokingly asked about Taliban. He then looked at us and smiled, put his finger up in approval. I then proudly stated I was from Eng-el-eese and pointed down to Taliban. The Aussie guy wasn’t aware that his fellow countrymen fighting alongside NATO in Afghanistan, so I let him on it. Eventually losing the Afghan guy we crossed to the other side of the street, looking at shops but he appeared again. Deliberately crossed the road to meet us and followed us, saying ‘Amer-ica’ and then motioning his hand across his throat in a cutting motion. I told him to go fuck himself and also to go back to the Dark Ages where he belonged. It’s at times like these that you discover what you believe in.

Back at the Silk Road Hotel - Aussie guy and I sit down on what appeared to be a large table with a Persian rug on it. We ordered some local food from the menu and we both checked our Facebook on the hotels tint lap top - identical to mine. Facebook is blocked in Iran, for all kinds of reasons but the main one is most definitely the threat of mass communication that Facebook offers for Iranians, particularly young Iranians (of whom an incredible 70 percent are under 30 years of age here) and therefore the potential for organised protest against a hated regime (and it is hated).

However, there are ways around this blocking issue - namely ‘proxy servers’ and this laptop had that as a lot of places do and I was able to get onto Facebook and BBC - albeit slowly. It turns out people who do madcap things like cycling across the world are pretty interesting people in general. Aussie guy was going to be competing in the bizarre 24 hour mountain bike world championship and this trip was a way of training for it. Bizarre but also one of those things Aussies tends to do - outdoors to the bone. Then all of a sudden the girls turned up; Iranian girls; Seven of them. We left them to the male attention whilst we ate and did internet things. But then the German guy came over and rolled his eyes warning us that they were just rich little girls, and complained that they were not interested in Berlin or German things. So we went over anyway. They were very young, about 18 years old but one was about 15 and they had varying degrees of English but lots of makeup. The garish kind. Aussie and I got stuck in and answered the usual question of where we were from, how old we were (the guessing game of course), what jobs we did, were we married etcetera. They laughed in unison a lot but also seemed to have trouble keeping attention; we would be asked a question, we would answer and then half way through you would lose their eye contact and they had moved onto their friend. They were clearly vacuous rich girls, one had had a nose job and although she denied it I was convinced a lip job too. I had to smile when half of them said they were studying fashion design at University - a bit of an odd subject in the Islamic Republic of Iran where hijab is the law, jackets have to reach half way to the knee and shorts are even banned.

I watched with surprise as they provocatively took off their scarves or let them fall behind their heads only to be rebuked by the Iranian man who was lurking around the table. An old geezer who said he was a teacher was lurking around the hotel courtyard to ‘practice English’ but he was rubbish at it and seemed creepy as he stood behind us all night. The German guy was right but it was interesting all the same - Iran has an elite like anywhere else in the world and they are all have that superficiality and animal pack behaviour trait to them. These just had scarves on. Normalcy in the land of the mullahs?

The next day I took advantage of the full breakfast on offer, including real freshly brewed coffee - a bloody rarity here in Iran - and then hit the Old City. I wandered along the mud brick alley ways walking as much as I could within the slithers of shade out of the blistering sun. First stop was the Jameh Mosque, or Friday Mosque which was built in the 15th Century and has 48 meter minarets - but unfortunately it was covered in scaffolding when I arrived - but still a magnificent sight. I then went deeper into the city which looks deserted because of the high mud brick walls but which is full of atmospheric alleys and passages to mosques and places like the 15th Century school of ‘Alexander’s Prison’ - a misnomer of a place that has a nice courtyard, bidgirs, a very cool (literally) subterranean teahouse and the deteriorated and dark interior of a tower. Nearby was the very cool early 11th Century brick ‘Tomb of the 12 Imams’ - containing inscriptions of the names of what Shiism’s sub branch of Twelvers believe are the 12 rightful descendants of the prophet Mohammed who died in 632. Sunni Islam follows another branch of descendants and leaders of Islam through Mohammed’s father in law and friend Abu Bakr.

I was already planning my onward journey and in particular I wanted to try a rail journey - always the most relaxing way to get about. So I popped into the tourist information office opposite the tomb and walked into a scene of a man and woman having an argument. Not one to impose my Western imperialist self onto other cultures I waited unobtrusively by browsing the coffee table books of ‘Majestic Iran’ with its broken written English whilst they ignored me and continued to argue. Eventually I plucked up the courage and asked about train tickets to which he made a sullen phone call and quoted me a price that was about a third more than I later found. I pointed out to him that I didn’t want to buy just yet but that I wanted a quote and that they I would now go so they could argue in peace.

I next walked in the stupidly hot midday sun to find a place the Lonely Planet Guide had listed as a place for ‘quite splendid views of the old city’. These were the directions: “From the tomb, turn left and follow a sweeping bend until it comes to a dusty space with a concrete table-tennis table. Then head left (southwest) under a domed passage for about 70m until you come to a square with a three-storey white facade (takieh) on the left. If you’re very lucky, the green-and-white metal door on the right will be unlocked (reach through to try it from the inside), and you’ll be able to climb to the domed roof of the Hosseinieh...”

I guess I was lucky because I guessed that the building work going on in a mosque was the place and so I asked a young lad if I could enter and he nodded his head. So, off I got stumbling amongst bricks and mortar and wheel barrows and climb some stairs and climb out onto a roof where there are indeed splendid views of the old city. Cue, comedy moments with timer and camera to get a photo of me and the city in the blinding sun.
By this time I was starving so I popped into a little kebab/falafel place and ate a cheap-as-chips combo of ‘hamburger’ (bits so hamburger meat in a roll with salad) and a samosa that they deemed necessary to put on a pan and fry into hardness. I wanted to follow up on obtaining a train ticket so I started walking to a travel agency through the Old City - passing through the Amir Chakhmaq Complex, a three storey takieh which is used
ZoroastrianismZoroastrianismZoroastrianism

Persia's religion
during rituals to commemorate the death of Imam Hossein - one of the largest in Iran. I then got lost in my quest for said agency and went down some tiny alleyways where I aroused the interest of a bloke on a motorbike who stopped in front of a metal door to his home. He indicated if I was lost so I told him I wanted to find the pharmacy (where I needed some lip balm). So he offered to take me and I got on the back of his motorbike and we sped through the streets, asking a taxi driver for directions. Five minutes later and I’m there and I thank him sincerely - dastat darnakokne thankyou I say and khoda ha fez - goodbye and I shake his hand.

Next stop was the travel agency so I decided to walk but before long I was accosted (yet again!) - Iranians like to kidnap tourists it seems. This time he was a soldier in green fatigues and on a motorbike and asked me where I was from and if I was lost - so I indicated the travel agency and he told me to get on the back of his bike - which I did. We then drove around a bit looking for this Persian-signed travel agency in between him asking me in broken English where I was from, what was my name, how old I was, if I was married (most important here) and would I like to come back to his home? I don’t normally accept invitations from soldiers on motorbikes to their home - but in Iran if you are invited you should accept - what they lack in decent hotels they make up for in magnificent and legendary hospitality.

Reza and I found the agency eventually and I bought a train ticket for Kerman the following day at 5.30 am. For whatever reason, the headscarved women in the agency all seemed to go out of their way to look busy and sullen when I turn up in any agency. Yadz is a fairly conservative place however and maybe they were scowls of ‘not another decadent infidel who can’t speak Farsi!’.

Reza (a popular Iranian name because of Imam Reza (765-818) the eighth Imam whose tomb is in Mashad, Iran) drove me to his house in a middle class area of metal shutters and gates - this constitutes residential areas in Iran (no hedges or nosey neighbours here it seems). As he opened the gate his entire family appeared and a little shocked it seems, I awkwardly shook hands and said salaams and wondered to myself if Reza had told his family that he was bringing a guest.

Led inside we entered the living room where I sat down on the Persian carpets with pillows and was served ice cold water and watermelon. Reza soon came back having changed from his army uniform into shorts and civvies. Then his father, mother, two brothers and his uncle sat down with me and we had a chat - the usual. I then got out my large map of Iran and showed them where I had been and where I was going to - always a good discussion point. Reza was on national service despite being 27 years old and was learning English in an Institute, but he struggled with the language to be honest but we were still able to talk and to interpret for the family. There was a rather enjoyable pace to proceedings, a certain drama; in between questions in Farsi, followed by a very basic translation for me in English, my slow reply in English, and then his reply for the family in voluminous Farsi.

They asked me about money and I told Reza that I could not access my own money in ATMs because of the sanctions that banned banks from doing business in Iran. They seemed shocked at this and they openly and universally complained about President Ahmedinijad and what a bad job he was doing. ‘Government no good’ is something I kept hearing in Iran, from Fatima and her cousin, from taxi drivers, students and families. Reza’s uncle asked me to take a photo of him and Reza’s father and made me promise to e-mail them we went upstairs to Reza’s house which he shared with his wife. As he took a shower, his brother Javed and I watched TV and I was surprised how many channels they had included the banned Voice of America (in Farsi) and BBC Persian, along with Turkish and European channels - this they picked up via satellite dish. This would also explain how well-informed they were about Iran as opposed to what the government told them.

We then went back downstairs and said our goodbyes to the family before driving off in Reza’s Peugeot to see some of the sights of the city. First stop was the Ateshkadeh or sacred eternal flame of Zoroastrianism, the religion of pre-Islamic Iran before the Arab invasions. Apparently it’s been burning since about AD470 before being transferred to Ardakan in 1174 and then to Yazd in 1474 before its present site in 1940. Reza then drove me to the outskirts of Yazd and tow barren hills that where in accordance with their beliefs in purity of earth dead bodies were laid on a stone pillar and their bones picked clean by vultures. I climbed up to the top but Reza, who despite being a soldier was carrying a belly on him, came half way and then retreated to his mobile phone and the car. The view from the top was spectacular and overlooking the second hill, very evocative; to think that these hills had been used in burial rites for thousands of years.

When I descended the hill, Reza was joined by a fellow solider friend who was also eager to speak English. It seemed that I was now in an English class and that I was the teacher. But as we drove around the city in the early evening tiredness crept over me. I thought about the 5.30 train I had to catch the next morning and how dirty I felt I needed a shower. So I asked to be returned to the Silk Road Hotel. So they dropped me off and we said out sincere farewells. I then took a shower and rested in bed, however sometime later the manager called me and told me that I had visitors. I went back up to the courtyard and of course the both of them were there and wanting to spend more time with me. They even asked if I was around tomorrow, but to be honest I was still tired and they didn’t seem to realise that they were imposing upon me. My umming and ahhing seemed to get through however and they finally said goodbye and I could return to my bed.

Despite essentially being picked up so that I could be used as an impromptu English teacher, and despite the level of English being pretty bad I did however see another side, the hospitable side of Iran and for that I was grateful. It was also my birthday and I turned the grand old age of 30 - and for some reason spending it in Iran was pretty special.

I arranged for a taxi to pick me up the next morning and the manager lent me an alarm clock because my travel clock despite the new batteries was not bleeping an alarm. Next stop Kerman in the deep south of the country.


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14th July 2010

Happy Birthday
Happy 30th..........join the 30th club I am setting stall for the 40 brigade.
15th July 2010

thanks! belated but appreciated. It didn't feel like a birthday really nor my 30th. Nothing's changed really.

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