Making desert tracks and making friends is easy

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Middle East » Iran » South » Kerman
July 11th 2010
Published: July 15th 2010
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1: Kaluts panorama 52 secs
After a day or so of sightseeing and meeting the locals in Yazd I planned to head south again. The next city was Kerman and from there I would venture to the eerie desert sculptures in the desert of Kaluts.

I wanted to travel there by train. I was a bit tired of all the buses and wanted to relax for the journey which is what train travel provides. However this is Iran and things aren't really the same here.

I arrived at Yazd railway station by taxi at half an hour before the 5.30 departure. I waited in the foyer with everyone else in headscarves, chadors and men with the usual uniform of plain trousers, belt and long sleeved shirt. The train was late by an hour and I'm already yawning.

Despite this line having been newly built the station is run down and the train is a bit shit to be honest. I struggled to get into the compartment because as I competed with my backpack to I look for the restaurant car and there is nothing open. In fact for the entire journey nothing is open. But I do go the car at 9 am when the train stops and I ask a train man for sibohtey - or breakfast. He comes back after opening the restaurant door and provides me with Lavesh bread with hard cold jam and butter and some hot tea and then that's it. I pay him as he comes back after I've eaten as much as I can fill. I sit and watch hundreds of miles of barren desert and purple coloured mountains on either side. Then I notice that the restaurant carriage is filling up with dust from the desert so I retreat to the other carriage.I go back to the compartment all the while trying my best to accommodate the inquisitive stares from absolutely everyone. Eventually after 7 hours we reach Kerman.

From the railway station I get a taxi to the city centre and a hotel. However, it's closed for renovation and so I head to Reza Guesthouse that's also listed in the Lonely Planet. The reception guy is an old craggy fella who demands my passport first bu I ask to see the room first; it's a bed in a dorm and it's a hovel with nasty stains and a thin mattress on a tiny single camp bed and for 150,000 Rial - about 15 US Dollars - a rip-off. Then the reception guy starts repeating “where you from? Holland, Germany, France?’ again and again but with a sneer, so I just walked out of there.

I walk through the city to the next hotel despite the heat and the bag on my back. It’s a mid range price even though it’s not Western Mid-range - in fact it’s tatty and dark; but I don’t care if it’s more expensive. I manage to get the manager to cut the price five dollars - why not no one else is staying there? I hadn’t eaten all day except a breakfast so I took a much deserved shower and then headed out to find somewhere to eat. From 12-5pm things are quiet in Iran - it’s so hot outside people take siestas. It gets busy after 5 until about 10-11pm. I found a take away place and ordered a hamburger - I got a long roll and hamburger meat inside - I still find this funny.

The three guys working there I get talking to, they’re young and I ask them a few questions in Farsi about how old they are. They ask me where I’m from and of course we discuss English football, clubs, players “Frank Lampard”. I’ve adopted Chelsea as my team because not having a team to support is not understood here. Especially being from London - where there are so many teams! I once made the mistake of saying I quite liked Brentford and only got bemused stares for my honesty. It was sort of asking them what’s 34 divided by 50,000. Anyway, these guys were super nice and when I got up to pay, “chande?” they refused payment. That was nice of them but I paid anyway.
Reenergised I walked to the Sacred Holy Defence Museum - which covers the more prosaically named Iran-Iraq War which lasted from 1980 to 1988. It was a very brutal affair killing from 500,000 to 1,000 000 Iranians and 500,000 Iraqis; trench warfare with barbed wire and tactics not used since the First World War - frontal human wave attacks and Saddam Hussein using chemical weapons on the Kurds in Iran and the Iranians launching thousands of suicide soldiers. In the museum there was a special room dedicated to them- they’re called ‘martyrs’ here in Iran. Muslim killing Muslim - not sure what that’s called though. Sectarian? Anway the Museum was closed until I got someone to open it up for me and I browsed the documentation of Iraq’s attack and bits of weaponry and helmets. The paintings and photos were most interesting to me - because it’s a war that I don’t really know about. Outside the museum was, amazingly, the reconstructed battlefield of Karbala V - with lakes, dug outs and boats. The conscripted soldier led me around the turned the lights on for each bunker revealing dusty and stuffy manikins in uniform. All a bit strange it has to be said, mind you I must have appeared strange to them too, a solo European walking around a museum about a war no-one’s heard of. I felt it was important to come though because one of the reasons Iran is so under-developed and run-down is a result of the physical damage and economic damage caused by the war.

Afterwards I arranged with a local guide to take me to the Kaluts the following day. This is a 145km-long and 80km wide stretch of desert dominated by ‘sand castles’. I then received a call from Matthew, a Canadian I’d met in Yazd who was heading on wards to Pakistan and was now in Kerman. We arranged to go together to split the cost with the guide but then I received another phone call from Yang of all people saying he was now in Kerman and was staying with Ali the guide who had asked him if he knew any other tourists that wanted to come! So Matthew, Yang and I decided to go to Kaluts together cutting the cost from 60 dollars solo to 40 dollars as a group in a period of an hour.

The next day Ali picked us up in his van and we drove a couple of hours into the Sirach Mountains before stopping at a mountain pass. Pointing up he told us to look for the white tail fin of an aeroplane. Ali told us that in 2003, a Russian-made military plane, Ilyushin Il-76, crashed into the mountain killing all 302 people onboard, including hundreds of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Otherwise known as Sepah these are the protectors of the hardliners of the Islamic Revolution. They are the elite and infamously captured and maltreated British sailors a couple of years ago as well as conducting the post-election suppression of protest last year. I asked Ali what had caused the accident and he said, “maybe Al-Qaeda”. I scoffed silently; if anything it was sabotage by any number of groups who resist the mullahs in Iran.

We then drove some more and entered the town of Shahdad - located about 100 kilometers out of Kerman, the spot is known as “earth's thermal pole” among geologists. The temperature there can reach a high of 100 degrees Celsius. The hottest place on earth. In the Kaluts itself the temperature in the lut desert can exceed 65 degrees Celsius in the shade' that makes it even hotter than "Death valley" in Saudi Arabia. Any one for barbequed human? Thankfully Ali had timed our arrival to be in the late afternoon.

40 kilometres more and we are there, jumping out and climbing to the top of an escarpment. What an amazing landscape! 1000 square kilometres of weird sculptured shapes that was formed due to water and wind erosion some 20,000 years ago. Ali and the driver were parked below and had set out a picnic of watermelon, qalyan (smoking water pipe) and tea. As the sun finally left the desert we all sat down and chatted. Ali told us the reason why we had had to register in Shahad - because of Afghan refugees crossing the border. In fact Ali told us a story where he had come across a group of them on the road nearby. They were in a bad way and gasping for water because they had been hidden inside an oil tanker - but things got bad with no water adn the heat inside; so they gave themselves up and were on the road. Ali said that some of them had died in the tanker - they’re hair had gone white - and afterwards having been picked up on the road. Our driver then popped off to smoke something that Pete Docherty might be used to - it’s very cheap and very common here. And despite the offer I didn’t partake - and I’m glad I didn’t...

Night had come and we next drove to a ‘campsite’ which was more like a car park with bright flood lights. We noticed a curious a group of about 40 Iranians who seemed to be getting ready to go somewhere. The girls weren’t wearing any headscarves (punishable by flogging) or manteaus (jackets that cover anything of allure for men), in fact some women and men were even wearing shorts (!!!). They told Ali that they were going on a 5 hour hike into the desert and inevitable asked us if we wanted to join us. Ali was a bit nervous in case we went along and one of us got lost - getting caught in the desert during the day effectively means being boiled alive. We walked over and struck up conversation with some tall beefy Iranian lads one of whom was an archaeologist and another was a professional mountaineer. As they passed around the canteener of wine and whisky for us to try (!!!) they asked us lots of questions like ‘why have you come to Iran?’ and ‘what do you think of Iran?’ to which I replied along the lines of ‘because it is hidden’, ‘because it has a bad image abroad’ and ‘because I was curious’. They told us that they were Loristan a place that have an ancient people the Loris who speak Old Persian with bits of Arabic thrown in. They were on a weekend trip with friends and family (all 40 of them) and were going through the desert at night because of the temperatures during the day; they would be led by a GPS device - we should come along. It was already 10.45pm and we were really tired so we told them we would think about it.

Over dinner we contemplated; both of us were very tempted, it was a full moon and it would be a great opportunity to see the desert and to talk to lots of young Iranians. Then they came over and told us that a second group would do the hike in three hours and that decided it. I changed into some shorts and put some trainers on. Yang declined the hike - which was understandable at his advanced years and so we set off. We stood in a line with the tall beefy Iranians guys each of us were given a number to remember which was then repeated out loud in a roll-call; I was Sio Pange - 35 and I shall remember that number for a very long time.

Off we trundled into the warm (30 degrees) moonlit night over sand dunes that stretched for miles and rock formations. I chatted to various guys about life, Iran, what we did back home, where we had traveled. Politics and religion was never very far away - one guy warned against America attacking Iran because ‘we will fight to the death’. But then he was a massive exception, a religious type. The others I spoke to were all gasping to leave Iran, they hated not only president Ahmedinijan but the regime as a whole - the Islamic theocratic government, the headscarves, the bullshit. It was a terrifically interesting 5 hours. One of the guys I spoke to wore shorts and a head band, listened to heavy metal on his mobile phone and was a student at university but was trying to immigrate to Canada. He was fascinating and funny. He dismissed Islam, in fact blamed the conquering Arabs for imposing it on them and changing Persians forever. He was also a tennis coach and pointed out to me dentists, law students, doctors and engineers among their group. I also spoke to a very pretty Iranian girl who was at university studying law; I asked her about the mix of Sharia and secular law in Iran and whether it was true that a woman’s testimony in a court of law is half that of a man’s. She nodded that it was true and her face said it all.

Five hours seemed to pass very quickly but I remember the dunes, the craggy sculptured shapes of the Kaluts and the singing of old Persian poems by Hafez and Fedosi. Magical.
When we got back to the concrete campsite we said our goodbyes, exchanged email addresses and tried to sleep the couple of hours in the open with a warm breeze blowing over us.

What I’m reading:
Eastern Approaches (1949) by Fitzroy Maclean - ‘an autobiographical account of the early career of Fitzroy Maclean. It is divided into three parts: his life as a junior diplomat in Moscow and his travels in the Soviet Union, especially the forbidden zones of Central Asia; his exploits in the British Army and SAS in the North Africa theatre of war; seizure of Persian general Fazlollah Zahedi, and his time with Josip Broz, Tito and the Partisans in Yugoslavia.
Maclean was considered to be one of the inspirations for James Bond, and this book contains many of the elements: remote travel, the sybaritic delights of diplomatic life, violence and adventure.’

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