Yazd: A Silk Road City
Between all our sightseeing and souvenir shopping, we had one important task to accomplish in Esfahan: to renew our Iranian visa. This was more straightforward than we had expected, and our application, much to our surprise, was processed on the spot. Thinking it was in the bag we were suddenly summoned to Room 3. Entering the room with some trepidation we were quickly put at ease when we uncovered their motivation for seeing us: they wanted at least five Australian idioms as one of the officers was a lover of Australian sayings. Unfortunately the police officers had so much fun practising sayings such as “no worries”, “she’ll be a stinker” and “see you round like a rissole” that they forgot to stamp our passports! When we returned to our hotel, we were told the police had called and we needed to return the following morning to collect the missing stamp. ||
With an extra 30 days granted, we now had plenty of time to do some more sightseeing, so we decided to go to the desert for a few days to visit Yazd. Leaving the bikes at our hotel in Esfahan, we caught a bus to Yazd, four hours away. We left the mountains behind and travelled along the edge of a vast desert which covers most of the eastern half of Iran, passing plenty of camel warning signs along the road, as well as a truck full of camels that were hopefully not destined for the camel butchery we saw in Yazd proudly displaying a camels severed heard at the entrance.
Having been inhabited for about 7000 years, Yazd is one of the oldest cities on earth. Yazd has been knows for its silks since before Marco Polo passed through in the 13th century. Its old town has a relaxed feel and is created of mud brick walls, topped by a forest of wind towers (badgirs).
We stayed at the Silk Road Hotel, a traditional hotel with a cosy courtyard setting and excellent food. Finally we had a break from kebabs, with lovely aubergine stews and chicken curries (resisting the camel burger that was also on offer). The Silk Road Hotel is a popular meeting place for travellers, and we enjoyed chatting to the other guests – backpackers, a couple of cyclists, and several people driving vans or motorbikes from Europe to India and teaming up for the difficult stretch through Pakistan that lay ahead.
Being in a desert region, the inhabitants of Yazd have devised some clever ways of making life more comfortable. Mud bricks offer fantastic insulation, so much so that the Persians used them to build circular ice houses that enabled them to store ice for the whole summer. The temperatures can climb up to 50°C in summer, so air conditioning is a life saver: this was provided by the wind tower or badgirs. These look a bit like large chimneys and are designed to catch even the smallest breeze, channelling it down into the rooms below. Often there is a pool of water below the point where the air enters, which cools the air down further. Meanwhile, warm air is channelled upwards and out of the shaft. The Bagh-e Dolat Abad pavilion in Yazd features the highest badgir in Iran, standing over 33m high. The room below is distinctly colder than the rest of the building, so we can attest to the effectiveness of the system.
The other great system, which has been in use for over 2000 years, is the qanat system. The qanats are tunnels designed to channel water from an underground water source to a town, village or agricultural area. It is estimated that Iran still has more than 50,000 qanats, and some cities such as Kashan and Bam still rely on them for their water supply. The Water Museum in Yazd was a great place for us to find out more about the construction of qanats, which can be a dangerous business that is undertaken by highly skilled workers dressed in a white garment that also serves as a shroud in case of an accident underground…
Our hotel was also a popular place for local Iranians to come and practice their English with the tourists. One evening, we met a young man who spoke very good English and wanted to chat. He told us that he was born in Iran but of Afghan nationality, as his parents were refugees from Afghanistan who had come to live in Yazd in the 1970s.
We spent the following morning with him, exploring Yazd, drinking tea and talking a lot. He was the sweetest guy who even insisted on paying for our bus tickets and showed us some of the highlights of Yazd, such as a historic hammam, a mosque filled with mirrored tiles and the central Amir Chakhmagh centre.
We had met several people in a similar situation already – people who were born in Iran but are of Afghan or Iraqi nationality. There is apparently no way for them to obtain Iranian nationality. This means they have very few rights, for example they are not allowed to work, drive cars, attend certain university courses, or travel outside of their home town – even though they were born in Iran! Of course they still need money to live, so they have to work, but it has to be done undercover and in fear of being caught and sent “back” (to a country they have never even been to). Of course most young people in this situation dream of being able to emigrate.
We enjoyed the garden setting of a posh hotel where we had lunch, and found out that there happened to be a UNICEF meeting taking place at the same hotel, so we watched the delegates pull up in their huge white Landcruisers. The topic: The situation of Afghan refugees in Yazd.
During our explorations of Yazd our friend was a little worried about the police, as he said he would get in trouble if they saw him with us. Once again we were asked to pretend he was just showing us the way in case anyone asked. This is also why we decided not to mention his name or post his picture in this blog.
After three days, we left Yazd deeply touched by our encounters to head back to Esfahan and dust off our bicycles for the ride down to Shiraz.