Monday, 9 June 2014

ESCAPE FROM TOURIST CENTRAL- Yazd and the Persian Gulf, Iran

Our route from Yazd down to Bandar Abbas and then Bushehr

The bus from Kerman to Yazd was very typical for Iran, in that it was overheated to the point of suffocation, no toilet stops, a snack pack of a drink and cake, and water available onboard during the journey.

We were very interested to see Yazd, as most travellers we met who had visited Iran had said it was their favourite place in the country. For us, it would have to be pretty incredible to beat what we had already seen and experienced. 

The first thing we noticed was the huge number of tourists- the majority elderly and in huge tour buses. The hotels in the old part of town were very plush to cater for this lot, and we found it hard to find a reasonably priced place. We had decided to have a break from Couchsurfing, as we had heard how lovely it was to stay in a historic building in Yazd.  It would give us a chance to catch up on time together and follow our own timetable for a few days.

We eventually found a newly opened small traditional hotel, and were very happy indeed to settle into our lovely room with beds (a novelty here!), spotless bathroom, air-con and a fridge (which we quickly filled with delicious Iranian supplies).

Our lovely Yazd hotel room

Courtyard Yazd hotel

Rich enjoying tea at hotel

Yazd is apparently one of the oldest cities of the world, being a major stop on the Silk Route. It has been continuously inhabited for 7000 years! The light brown colour of the ancient buildings, along with the simple design and high walls in the streets gave a quiet and minimalist atmosphere. While we could appreciate the clear-cut lines, it’s not our favourite type of architecture. It was nice to see what the old mansions would have looked like years ago, by looking at the renovated buildings that had been turned into hotels, restaurants and museums.

Old pot, Yazd museum

Beautiful window, Yazd museum

Dusty old lamps, Yazd museum

Ornate roof, Yazd

"Topoli" (fat shop), Yazd

A glimpse into a courtyard, Yazd

Yazd street

Roof badgirs, Yazd

Zoroastrian tiles, Yazd

The Jameh Mosque was our favourite sight in town, covered in thousands of beautiful blue/green tiles from the floor to the towering bulbous ceiling.

Dolat Abad, Yazd

Dolat Abad, Yazd

Fooling around with coloured glass, Yazd

Gorgeous roof, Yazd

Tiles, Masjid Jameh, Yazd

Masjid Jameh, Yazd

Colour co-ordinated, Masjid Jameh, Yazd

The “untouristy” part of the old bazaar was also great, and although there were no souvenir shops or teahouses, we found the industrious craftsmen in their workshops interesting, and the atmosphere more authentic.

Head on the footpath, Yazd

Workshop, old bazar, Yazd

Workshop, old bazar, Yazd

A man and his legs, Yazd

Camel carcass, Yazd

Busy in the workshop, old bazar, Yazd

We hated to see the women in Yazd almost exclusively in black chadors and black clothes, looking like flocks of penguins shuffling along the streets. The chador really is the most ridiculously designed piece of clothing, requiring the woman wearing it to hold it closed with her hands continuously, leaving it very difficult to do anything else at the same time.

Zoroastrianism is the oldest monotheist religion in the world, and around 5,500 of the 150,000 world wide followers live here in Yazd. We were familiar with Zoroastrianism from India where many of the devotees live, especially in Mumbai (they are called Parsi there), and are most famous for their burial ritual. They believe the dead should not pollute the earth, and huge towers have been built for the bodies to be laid out for the vultures to pick at. This custom is no longer in practice in Iran, with Zoroastrians here being buried in concrete to avoid pollution. We leant that much of the funding for Iranian Zoroastrians comes from their wealthy brothers and sisters in India

Apart from this, and the fact that fire is very important to these people, we didn’t know much about them at all, and were lucky enough to be invited to go to Chak Chak, the most important Zoroastrianism pilgrimage place in Iran. The story is when the Arabs invaded (“they ruined everything” said one local man), a Yazd princess ran away to hide in this remote desert location. It was a good spot for concealment, hidden away in the middle of no-where, 72 kms from Yazd. We were fortunate to see a Zoroastrian family there with the men all in white, and the women in colour with no chador, praying in the cave temple.

Zoroastrian cave temple door, Chak Chak

Chak Chak Zoroastrian fire temple

View from the fire temple hill

Zoroastrian man praying, Chak Chak

An interesting aside is that the Zoroastrian symbol of a winged old man seen in all pre-Arab sites has now somehow been adopted as a national symbol of Persia, with many business and signs displaying the icon. This stuck us as being ironic in a country where the Government is trying to portray such a strict Islamic image.

Zoroastrian symbol

We had a radical change of plans at the last minute on our last day in Yazd, and decided to head south to Bandar Abbas to get back to the untouristy area we had enjoyed at the start of our Iran trip, meet up with friends, and take an alternate route to Shiraz, via Bushehr. This new idea would also allow us to embark on a train trip- our first in Iran.

We were curious to compare the trains here with the dozens we have taken in India. Of course, in Iran, things are more organized, run more or less on time, there’s more security, cleaner carriages (brand new sheets were distributed when we boarded, along with a snack pack of cake, nuts and drinks) and more comfortable. But they are actually quite cramped inside the carriages, and we were happy we were only sharing with one other person. Of course, the temperature was way too hot when we left, but this changed to freezing overnight. One other awkward thing was the locking of the toilets at station stops. Although this would have kept the stations from smelling like India, it was very painful when the stop was a long one!
The scenery coming into Bandar Abbas was stunning (once again!), and Richard enjoyed watching the final part of the train trip, while Sal slept on.

It was terrific to see our first Couchsurfing host again, plus some other friends we had made during our first time in Bandar Abbas, and we had a couple of days catching up on writing and photos, as well as attending a party, where typically for Bandar Abbas, there was warm welcomes, great food, Bandari music, and lots of dancing in the Bandari style (a lot of shaking in the upper body!)

"Old" friends, Bandar Abbas

A good time dancing Bandari style

The twins dancing up a storm, Bandar Abbas

Our host- an expert Bandari dancer!

We had such a nice time travelling from Bandar Abbas to Chabahar a few weeks ago, we decided to give a go in the opposite direction, and set off westward. We were happy to leave the uncomfortable bus in Bandar Lengeh, another port town on the Persian Gulf, a few hours from Bandar Abbas. This was another option for us getting from Dubai to Iran, and after a quick look around the strangely unfriendly town, we were glad we had chosen Bandar Abbas.

We tried to hitch a lift on the road leading out of Lengeh, but after a couple of unsuccessful hours, we settled gladly for the big, comfortable and cool bus that pulled up to take us to Siraf, or Bandar Taheri.
This was another case of putting ourselves in the hands of Iran, and it didn’t fail to deliver. When the bus dropped us in the middle of the highway, some nice men in a car showed us the way to the Bandar Taheri, a motor bike gave us a lift into the small town, people stopped to give us a lift in a car, and when we decided to sit down and eat some pizza, a local man who spoke some English came to talk with us, and insisted on paying for our dinner! It ended up that Taheri had no hotel, but his uncle worked at the museum, where we could have a shower and sleep for the night in quite a nice room for free. The next morning, the uncle showed us around the small but surprisingly interesting museum, and around some of the sights of the city. In typically generous Iranian style, he paid for the taxis, bought us drinks and carried them (it was stinking hot), and refused any payment on our departure (we won that argument, however, after quite a struggle!)

Siraf old water system

Siraf castle

View of Siraf from castle

Siraf castle

Nice man we met in Siraf made this for us!!

Bandar Taheri was a really important port town around a thousand years ago, when the people there traded with many country’s ships, including China, India, Malaysia, Japan and Africa. Back then the town was huge, complete with mansions, a picturesque castle and sophisticated water storage systems, some of which we visited with our friendly guide.

Despite protestations it was much too hot to travel, we left midday to our next destination, Bushehr.
Bushehr was a big surprise for us. All we knew about it before arriving was that there was a contentious nuclear power plant nearby, but we didn’t realize how pleasant the town would be! It had such an agreeable, progressive vibe, with wide streets, not much traffic, many seaside picnic areas and parks, and a fantastic heritage area at the tip. There was more than a whiff of affluence in the air, and the inhabitants were mostly untraditional looking, pushing the bounds of hijab with their tight clothes and barely on their heads scarves. Sal decided it was her favourite city thus far in Iran.

Mending Sal's bag, Bushehr

On the beachfront, Bushehr

With our lovely hosts, Bushehr

The reason for this for sure was Busheher’s contact with the outside world, especially European countries, through trading over hundreds of years. Many countries such as England, Holland, Russia and the Ottaman Empire even had embassies here! We could see the influence in the architecture and the people’s dress, and also in their attitudes. They were as about a liberal lot as you could find in Iran. It was also the first place in Iran to get a printing press, ice-making, and electricity. 

Our Couchsurfing host in Bushehr was a lovely young guy, who had the best English we had come across in Iran (self taught, which is very common here). It was such a pleasure to talk to him normally and be understood! His family didn’t speak as good English as he, but they were so amazingly welcoming to us, we felt very spoilt and at home. Our host had very kindly agreed to accomodate us, although he had a hectic lifestyle, with study at university most mornings, followed by long shifts at a local hospital to pay for his studies. Add to that his social life, and we were sure he never slept! The nicest dinner we enjoyed with the family was a beachside picnic Bushehri style, with a big rug, chicken kebabs roasted over coals, eating till we were stuffed, then shisha and chai!

BBQ Bushehr style

Our first night we were taken to a friend’s stylish house in their house in the old town for a party, and were again surprised- this time at the fashionable young people and their cool outfits (including short skirts and revealing necklines!), and attitudes to match.  They even smoked the kelyun (shisha) with coconut milk instead of water! 

Bushehr shares the same musical tradition with Bandar Abbas (they are both classed as Bandari cultures), but the Bushehris seem to enjoy their own unique music even more than their Bandar Abbas neighbours. We were treated to a hilarious dance by two talented male friends of our host's, and we all joined in for a great night.

Fashionable youngsters (only in the house, of course), Bushehr

Party portraits, Bushehr

Our host later gave us a gift of a Bushehri music CD (which included music played on their version of the bagpipes, made from an intact goat skin), and explained to us the uniquely adverse position Iranian music artists are in. Because downloading from the internet is not illegal here, artists make nothing from album sales and only make their money through concerts.

Busheri instrument, like a bagpipe

Some awesome Bandari music here

We really loved the completely non-touristy old part of the town, and although many buildings had fallen down, and been replaced by new ones, many were being restored and appreciated. On our stroll around the tiny alleys we were invited into an old house, where the inhabitants obviously couldn’t afford the renovations, but we felt lucky to see the original features that were left. An interesting feature on some of the old house was two knockers- one large with a deep knock for men and a smaller, lighter one for women. These were there in order to inform the women of the household who was calling, and whether it was appropriate for them to answer the door!

Inside old house, old Bushehr

Old Bushehr back street

Bushehr knocker

Cutie, old Bushehr

Old tree, Bushehr

Back streets of old Bushehr

Another highlight was the Ghavam Restaurant, a very special place (similar to the Traditional Teahouse in Kerman), where we enjoyed a tasty meal in sumptuous surroundings in a massive old building with high ceilings once used for water storage, filled with antiques and oozing character.

On our trips out and about in Busheher, we did see the nuclear power plant in the distance, and we have to say, we were disappointed that it looked nothing like Homer’s workplace in The Simpsons! Apparently the many Russians who work at the plant live in a special camp away from the city, and are not at all liked by locals. We were advised to get in quick that were not Russian, as because there are no tourists here, it would be presumed we were one of them! They are paid much more than their Iranian counterparts, don’t fit in well with the culture, “dress like gypsies” and bargain hard for everything!

The time came to leave the heat of the early summer in Bushehr, and drive the five hours of gorgeous scenery to Shiraz on the bus. The road was incredible, in a country full of beautiful journeys, and the twisty roads and steep rocky valleys gave way to greenness and orchards of pomegranates, olives and date palms.


  1. Totally delightful to move through the geometric color mosaics, that you artfully captured through giving an elemental feel of perspective with the the outside structural forms. Social realism through the workshops cluttered with exited still life of pots and vase, along with animated tailors and merchants, and the almost surreal depiction of animal body parts strewn on street. Thank you for giving me a vicarious life.

  2. You mention that the chador is an incredibly impractical garment. I agree entirely. When I was teaching at the University of Esfahan (1974-75), I had a woman student in one of my classes who had obtained special permission to come to class wearing a chador (regular drill was for women to take theirs off when passing through the gate onto the campus). As all students had to do, she would take her turn to read aloud in class. To hold the book properly she had to use both hands. Then to take care of her chador she had to put a fold of it in her mouth. This made her reading quite muffled, but at least she was following religious etiquette!