Tuesday, July 17, 2012


As I mentioned before, there is a big competition between Esfahan and Shiraz as to which is better but in a way Yazd was my favourite destination because it felt more traditional, exotic and ancient than the other cities I visited in Iran. Of course there is a large modern city to it and like everywhere in Iran it was spread out too much, but at the same time there is a very obvious and fairly compact old town that can be easily visited on foot.
Like Kerman, Yazd is on the edge of a desert (but a different desert) so was also very hot and dry. Yazd and the surrounding area also claim to be amongst the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world going back around 7000 years also. It doesn't feel quite that old but wandering around the old town definitely gives the impression of going back in time a few centuries at least. It has the standard mud-brick walls and narrow lanes look typical to old desert cities around the world but what is more exciting for me was that the traditional methods of architectural cooling and water distribution are still in use and easily seen. A/C is king the world over but in Yazd the skyline is dotted with wind towers. These towers look like chimneys with side openings designed to catch the breeze and redirect it into the house, often over a pool of water which serves to cool the air and reduce the incoming dust. The principle is simple, energy efficient, effective and looks cool too. Iranians'll tell you that it's unique to Iran and Yazd but I'd actually seen wind towers before in Dubai (of all places) in a traditional museum there. The Iranians reply that this is just another example of Arab idea theft from back in the day...

A traditional water reservoir with wind towers.

On top of a traditional hotel admiring all the wind towers.

The old town of Yazd has many crumbling and abandoned sections.

Yazd's most iconic structure.

Iranian shrines are so shiny.

I got dizzy staring up into this for a while.

One of the more interesting museums in the country is the water museum in Yazd. Just as they've harnessed the air very effectively for cooling, the ancient Yazdis also came up with an amazing system for maximum utilization of their water. It's called a qanat, and underground water tunnel dug by hand for many km through the desert. This system is still in use around the region including in Kerman and Bam where I saw them also. There is water, even in deserts and so they find the water at a source in the mountains at a higher level than the city and dig tunnels underground (often quite deep) with an extremely shallow grade, directing the water to and under the city where it can be stored in huge underground reservoirs or sent out to fields for agricultural use. The reservoirs are big half domes with several windtowers rising up from them to keep the water cool and fresh. Nearby there would be an entryway with a long set of stairs decending to the reservoirs where the public could go and fetch water. As far as I know most of these reservoirs and many of the qanats are dry now and not used, with the entries to the reservoirs bricked up and garbage thrown down the stairs. Some qanats still work and you can hear them or see them when they reach the surface of the city. For example in most cities on the sides of the streets there are gutters of varying sizes used for carrying off rainwater (not good for bad parallel parkers as they are often not guarded and you could easily drive into them), but as I've seen no rain they've always been dry, except in places where there is a natural continuous flow from the mountains. In Bam, although it was very hot and dry, there was always lots of water flowing beside the streets, so much so that it supported quite a bit of algae. In Yazd there is also this water, still hidden underground. The building and maintenance of these qanats is very dangerous and difficult and the workers held in very high esteem within their communities. The girls will remember all this because we saw the same system at work in Xinjiang province of western China where it is in use also. Don't ask me who invented it though.
For some reason, of all the cities in Iran it seems that Yazd has the most famous backpacker hotel and I went into it to book a day tour to some nearby sites. It's the only place in Iran that I've seen any concentration of foreign tourists other than the odd 1 or 2 I've come across through couchsurfing. Even the main tourist sites have had fewer... Sad. The very informal day tour started with 6 of us in 2 cars with a local driver with a guiding license. We went about an hour away to Kharanaq, a mostly deserted village with a history going back 1000+ years. The central older part of the village is all crumbling mud-brick now and very interesting to scramble around in. It's built in layers but I couldn't figure out the layout really. Most of the area was too damaged to really walk around in and you'd see holes in the ground you were walking on and another set of rooms below you. I imagine it'd be quite easy to fall through in places. I'd've loved longer to explore it more but tours don't allow such things and so much too soon we were rounded up and driven to Chak Chak, a Zoroastrian holy site where legend has it a princess hid from invading Arabs and found a hidden source of dripping water. The location and views are cool from up the mountain. Our final stop was in the larger town of Meybod to see another crumbling citadel, a caravansarai and another huge reservoir that was used to store ice. The mud-brick architecture and building below ground makes it so much cooler that they could cut ice formed in a pool in front of the reservoir during the cold winter nights and store it for use all summer. Extra impressive as I was feeling the summer temperatures they had to counter.



The road to Chak Chak.

Speaking of Zoroastrians, Yazd is home to Iran's largest Zoroastrian community and I was lucky to have hosts that were from a Zoroastrian background. The largest global zoroastrian community is now in India and there are a few old Zoroastrian sites kicking around in neighbouring countries so I knew a couple things about the religion but had never been able to meet and talk to them before.
Zoroastrianism is considered to be the first monotheistic religion in history and was the dominant regional religion until the Islamic invasion. Zoroastrian symbolism dominates the old historical sites like Persepolis and is surprisingly common throughout the country in tourism promotion, etc. The 3 wise men from the birth of Jesus story are believed to be Zoroastrian Magi and the religion is mostly remembered for 2 unique practices, “fire worship” and “sky burials”. The don't actually worship fire but have fires burning in their temples symbolizing purity. The main temple in Yazd has a flame that is said to have been burning continously for over 1500 years. It's been moved a couple of times and has only been in that temple since 1940 but it's still an impressive stat. The sky burials take place in towers of silence, special towers built on hills where the dead are left to be consumed by vultures. There are some towers that are still active in India but the 2 in Yazd have not been used since the 1960's.

The Zoroastrian fire temple.

The towers of silence just outside the city.

Zoroastrians are integrated and accepted in Iranian society and within their own community are much more relaxed. They have to obey Iranian law but do not otherwise have prohibitions against alcohol or have restrictions on their women. They are supposed to pray 5 times a day though. Could this be where Muslims got it from in the first place? There are still Zoroastrian villages surrounding Yazd and with my hosts I was able to visit them. Ok, it's not really all that different but it sounds special. I was also able to see a unique exercise form called Zurkhana. It's some kind of traditional aerobic workout for men only in Iran. In Yazd there is one that is open to visitors to watch inside one of the reservoirs. In Zurkhana the men wear a traditional set of pants and exercise in a circle while another guy drums and sings. It's quasi-religious somehow and mostly didn't make much sense but I liked the music and thought the whole thing overall was interesting. The session lasted for an hour and looked pretty thorough and involved lots of spinning too. The nice part is that the participants were of such a varied ages and skills. A guy sort of leads the activity and the others follow along but can do it with their own personal variants/interpretations so there isn't really pressure to keep up with the crowd and hurt yourself.


With my hosts we also went out of town for the weekend (thursday and friday in Iran) to hang out in a mountain village, Manshad, with some of their friends. It was cooler which is why everyone heads up there in the summer and quite relaxing just hanging out in the garden in the shade of the trees relaxing.
We walked a bit through the village orchards and got lost until ending up near a cemetary. There are lots of memorials thoughout the country as well as photos of soldiers killed during the war with Iraq. It's still very much a part of the public psyche as every village and town seems to have had it's share of victims. This is of course the war between Iran and Iraq which lasted through most of the 1980's and had no net result other than destruction. According to Iran, Iraq invaded first and was better equiped (being backed by the US) but Iranians are tougher and were more determined and so turned the tide and tried to invade Iraq to possess the 2 holiest Shia pilgrimmage sites in Iraq at Karbala and Najaf. Both sides failed and the cities along the border were destroyed (there are still apparently entire cities and villages still destoryed and abandoned along the southern border region) and I've met quite a few people that migrated from the area to Tehran during that time or had loved ones killed during the war.

Hanging out in Manshad village.

My hosts from Yazd, walking in Manshad.

A war memorial and photos of dead soldiers from Manshad.



At 12:40 PM , Anonymous Natalia said...

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I got your couch request from CS site, but couldn't respond through the site as I haven't finished my registration process yet.
We have a couch available in Kiev, Ukraine August 8th through 11th, if you are still interested.
You can contact me at chasdii4u@gmail.com


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