The desert city of Yazd

I had a difficult time navigating through the narrow, maze like passageways of Yazd. Everywhere looked similar and even with Google maps loaded onto my phone, there were alleyways that were yet to be mapped. The mud brick walls that had stood over two metres tall for hundreds of years were designed to provide sufficient shade from the intensity of the sun during the day – we were in the middle of the desert after all. It was nearly impossible to become lost though as it would always would spit you out at one of the main roads bordering the centre of town.

Despite the recommendations from Tripadvisor, my hotel was a bit further out from the centre of town than I had expected. Like most hotels here, they were once owned by merchants and were now converted into hotels, while still maintaining the original features of a network of winding corridors and rooms surrounding a central pond that was shrouded in bougainvillea flowers.

It was just on sunset when I arrived and I asked the gentleman at the front desk where the best place for a sunset view was, to which he replied was from the roof of the hotel. I quickly dumped my bag in the room, and made my way up the three levels and climbed out onto the roof to be greeted by an orange lit sky and the sounds of the call to prayer. It could be heard from the mosques in every direction as though they were singing and communicating with each other.

yazd streets

The narrow high walled networks of alleyways can be confusing to navigate through at times but provides much needed shade from the harsh sun.

Yazd is known for its architecture and building engineering. For a city in the desert, its main priority in design is to sustain life. On the rooftop looking out into the distance, the huge chimneys objects protruding from many of the buildings was the site of what I would come to be familiar with over the next couple of days. Those chimneys weren’t designed for fire, but were windcatchers; an ancient form of air conditioning that allowed hot air to escape from the inside and for incoming air to be cooled off by the pools of water inside.

yazd cityscape

Cooling towers are a prominent feature amongst the mosques in Yazd.

The history in Yazd dates back up to 5,000 years and long before the introduction of Islam. Prior to Islam, the main religion that originated from Persia was Zoroastrianism. As the Arab and Islamic invasion spread throughout Persia, the Zoroastrians fled to the protection of the desert in Yazd, where they continued to practice their religion in the fire temples. The religion is still practiced today and although the majority of the temple is off-limits to non believers, it is possible to visit – just don’t go on a Sunday which was when I went and it was closed.

The Towers of Silence.

Instead of visiting the temple, I visited the Towers of Silence on the outskirts of town. The towers are the remnants of where the Zoroastrians would prepare the bodies of the dead prior to burial. They believed that when a human died, unsavoury spirits would enter the corpse of the dead. So in order to purge the body of those evil spirits prior to burial, the flesh would need to be removed from the body so that it would not come into contact with the earth, thus bringing bad fortune.

yazd tower of silence

The view of one Tower of Silence from another.

Within the temple, the deceased would be laid out in a circle with women and children in the centre and the men on the outer circle. Over time, the decomposing meat and internal organs would be picked at by vultures until there was no visible signs of the evil laden flesh. Only after the elements had bleached the bones, was when the bones could then be properly buried.

I had no idea what to expect of the Towers of Silence, but the open table top structure on top of two separate hills didn’t come as a surprise when I saw it. True to its word, it was silent up there and despite the city boundary encroaching on the towers by the day, we were completely sheltered from its existence by a circular mud brick wall.

towers of silence yazd

The bodies of the dead would be arranged in a circle pattern for the vultures to feed off, strpping the flesh from the bones and allowing the harsh environment to cleans the bones of any unsavoury spirits. This practice was still in existence until recently when it was banned, but is still performed in Mumbai, India.

Four tourists and a tour guide

I met a young German in my hotel by the name of Leonard, who was spending the month travelling in Iran. As the majority of interesting  things to see and do were in the towns and mountainside outside of Yazd, I raised the idea of getting a guided tour the following day which he happily agreed to.

It was an early start to the day as the tour would be jam-packed with visits to  an abandoned village at Kharanagh, a Zoroastrian temple in an a mountainside location called Chak Chak, the ancient Narin Qale citadel, an old pigeon house, the Abbasi caravanserai and then concluding at an old ice storage house. Our guide was a quite a friendly and a talkative fellow who had an extensive grasp of Iranian history and the traditions. Not a minute went by without him telling us a trivial fact about the place or the way of life in Iran. Also joining us were a Belgian couple: Peter and Sarah and they too proved to be good company to travel with.

yazd abandoned town

The deserted town of Kharanagh. Built from clay, the space for each home is much less and closely resembles a miniature town. The minaret (centre) has been fully restored but much of the town remains deserted and in a state of disrepair.

Everybody brought a unique perspective and dynamic to the group which at times, made for interesting and animated conversations. Our guide had an interest in Zoroastrian history the most interesting story he had was of the time that he went to Mumbai, India where a group of Persians who immigrated there, still practice the burial ritual involving the vultures to this day. He spoke of the lengthy and difficult process of applying with the authority to allow him to enter the temple and witness the vultures picking away at the carcasses. He was also required to have blood tests before leaving the country to ensure he hadn’t contracted any diseases while in the temple.

chak chak

The temple at Chak Chak. A sacred Zorastrian site where thousands come here each June to pray. It is said that the daughter of a pre Islamic ruler was persued by the Arabs and cornered in this area. She prayed for safety and in response, the mountain opened up and offered protection from the invaders. The constant trickle of water is thought to be the constant tears of grief.

chak chak

There was another group of local tourists visiting Chak Chak. Like most Iranians we met, they spoke fluent English and as usual, chatted to the for an extensive period of time while we were in the main fire room. Afterwards, they offered us unlimited amounts of watermelons, followed by a song and dance show put on by their guides. Quite a surreal moment.

 

Leonard had recently finished up an engineering contract and was in between jobs while he waited for his next job to commence. He was a practicing Christian and his exposure to Iranian culture was through his church group where there were some Iranians.

He had been planning this trip for a while and the meticulous preparation that he carried out in order to plan this trip put me to shame. His preparation had involved months of studying the extensive history as well learning to speak Farsi. Despite his claims that he was only a novice, he sounded perfectly fluent as he was casually conversing and no doubt flirted with the local women who we met at the stop off points along the tour.

He had fully planned out this trip down to every bit of detail over a long time and it was now his moment to shine and I could tell that he was relishing every moment of it like a kid in a candy store as he was adding everybody he had met onto Whatsapp.

Peter and Sarah were a couple and were expecting their first child as Sara was just past the three-month mark. They said they decided on Iran because it was a case of putting their finger on a map and where it landed, they would go to. I could say that Peter was more of a realist amongst the group, so when the topic of religion came up, which was most of the time, the conversation in our four-wheeled chariot would always become much more lively as we’d argue the merits of science versus creation.

ice chamber in yazd

Inside an ice chamber where large blocks of frozen ice from the winter would be transported and stored and insulated to last throughout the summer.

qanats in yazd

In addition to being great architects, the people were experts at building qanats that could transport water through along narrow, underground channels that was set at the slightest angle to allow the water to flow in the right direction. The task of building these qanats was so dangerous, that the workers would wear white which is the colour in which Muslims are buried in when they die.

A night in the desert

After the tour had finished, Peter, Sarah and I made plans for our guide to be our driver to Shiraz the following day. Along the way we’d stop at various ancient and historical sites, most of which are organised as part of day trips from Shiraz. It made sense that we had may as well do it from Yazd on the way to Shiraz and kill two birds with the one stone. Before we’d do so though, I had a night planned to sleep under the stars in the desert.

We barely had any time to freshen up, when the driver arrived in his battered old taxi to take us out to our location in the Bafgh desert. It was to be myself, Leonard and two Italians who would be spending the night in the desert.

desert camel riding in yazd

As stable as a bucking bull, only in slow motion.

camel riding in yazd

Ever noticed camels have a permanent grin?

Despite it being late in the afternoon, there was no reprieve from the heat as the driver refused the turn on the air conditioning for our hour-long journey; so instead, we drove with all of the windows down to blow dry in the afternoon Persian heat. Along the way, evidence of the rapid industrialisation and development was quite prevalent. Entire sections of mountains had literally been carved out by heavy machinery, with the materials being processed at nearby factories into cement mixture and transported away along the new train lines.

As we arrived, it seemed like it was a race against the clock to enjoy what was left of the day. The sun was beginning to set and the staff on site were in a panic that we wouldn’t get out scheduled camel ride in. It turned out that the nephew of our tour guide from yesterday was running the show and he was directing everybody on who would ride which camel.

yazd desert sunset

Off to enjoy what was left of the sunset.

iranian desert

It wasn’t the largest of sand dunes, but pretty nonetheless.

After greeting our camels and mounting them without any difficulty, we were up and away after a couple of clicking sounds from the handler. It was my first time on a camel and I can’t say that it’s the most comfortable form of transportation. It could best describe as a super slow motion version of riding a bull at the rodeo.

As soon as I became used to the jolting motion of the camel, it was all over. I guess a camel ride is technically a camel ride, even though it lasted for less than five minutes. As soon as we dismounted, we were ushered in the direction of the dunes, where a group of people were already positioned to see the sunset on in the distance; so we made our way over to enjoy what remained of the afternoon sunset.

yazd desert

Messing around with light painting.

yazd desert moonlight

Pretty bright yeah? Maybe a visible star or two.

After a beautifully home cooked meal by our guide’s wife, we all gathered outside under the stars in what seemed like a regular routine wherever I went: eat, drink tea, smoke a shisha and talked about anything that came to mind. For us, they were mainly questions about life in Iran and for him, it was just about life in our respective countries. It was no different to any other conversation that I’ve had with many strangers wherever I have been.

Later on, feeling that my brain was now depleted of oxygen from the shisha, I chose to sleep outdoors under the moon which was full and bright. I always seem to get the bad luck when it comes to astrophotography, although usually a result of poor planning on my behalf. Anytime I intended on travelling to a place known for its celestial night sky, I would somehow end up arriving at the peak of the full moon where the moonlight masks any signs of the milky way. This time, I would just have to deal with whatever I could manage to capture.

moon in yazd

Ever seen the moon set? It’s well worth getting up at 4am for.

Despite being incredibly exhausted, I had a terrible night of sleep where the shadows cast by my leafy shelter would flicker across the sand as if they were desert scarecrows. With each minute, the moon would set closer to the horizon and turn into a warm orange colour. It was quite a scene as I’d never seen a moon set as well as the night sky light up as though it was an evening sunset. By now some more stars had unveiled themselves as a result of the setting moon.

A few hours later, I was the first one awake to catch the sunrise. It was dead calm and a contrast to sunset yesterday. The wind had smoothed out all the footprints from the previous day and the only evidence of life were fresh tiny paw prints belonging to some sort of desert rodent. For the following hour, as I enjoyed the sunset and the rest of my time in the desert, I wondered what it would have been like for Marco Polo to have passed through during the 13th century. Would he be struggling to stay upright on camels, riding along similar terrain as he made his way along the silk road and discovering new lands to trade with?

sunrise in yazd desert

A stunning sunrise to cap off a great time in Yazd.

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