Sunday, 8 June 2014

ROCK CITIES AND CAVE DWELLERS- Two weeks in and around Kerman

The areas we visited around Kerman

Most of our hosts so far in Iran had been males- it was just the way it turned out. We consciously looked for a female Couchsurfing host in Kerman, and were very lucky to come across her and her daughter. Quiet and thoughtful host and her energetic daughter are long time Couchsurfing hosts, but have been scared off in recent years by police checks. Couchsurfing is officially illegal in Iran, some say, others profess its fine, but the police are often suspicious of foreigners staying with Iranians. They have a beautiful apartment in Kerman with our first Western toilet of Iran! Most homes and restaurants have the squat variety.

Lovely apartment, Kerman

Sal with our hosts

Our first sight of the towering snow capped mountains around the town had us a little worried, but the temperature was not too cold. Actually, cold weather in Iran is not such a big deal. Unlike India, they are well set up for it, with all homes and hotels having hot water showers and heating in cooler months. Very civilized! We also saw and met our first non-Iranian tourist in Iran in Kerman!

Our first task in Kerman was to get a visa extension. All the trouble we had in Delhi getting our Iranian visa  was only for a one month stay, and unbelievably that month was up. We’d heard negative stories about obtaining an extension here, so we were very relieved when the English speaking policeman at the headquarters gave us another month’s stay in exchange for US$10, although it did take 5 hours due to a “system failure”.

Happy we had more time in this amazing country, we set out to see the sights around Kerman town. It’s a big, desert town, which in some ways seems to be quite modern with many young trendies around town, but also more black chadors than we’ve seen before. Apparently people who work for the Government have a strict dress code, with a full head scarf with no hair showing, black or brown colours, and usually a chador for women all being compulsory. Hopefully these people get to dress down during their time off. We loved seeing our host transform from her dark tent-like work clothes to a colourful Indian dress when she arrived home.

Local woman, Kerman

Large door knocker, Kerman

 The Grand Bazaar is a beautiful design, unfortunately full of Chinese imports, but the traditional tea house was a real treat. We’d never seen such a place- an old haman, with paintings, vaulted ceilings, tiles and carpets everywhere. We had tea and kelyun (water pipe) and lingered for hours enjoying the atmosphere.

Enjoying kelyun, teahouse, Kerman

Old teahouse, Kerman

Interesting Sufi man, Kerman

Bazar roof, Kerman

Another highlight was an abandoned fort on the outskirts of town. We enjoyed the views and clambering around the ruins- actually it’s one of our favourite things to do, and there are so many opportunities in Iran!

Rock castle, Kerman

Remain of old castle,Kerman

Old mud castle, Kerman

Other things of interest around Kerman were the Jamed Masjid (Friday Mosque- every town has one), lovely library building, beehive shaped ice storage house, the Contemporary Arts Gallery (we found it hard to get around the gallery because of the friendly people who constantly approached us to chat), various tombs, and the Zoroastrian Fire Temple (sounds more exciting than it actually was!)

The stunning Masjid Jameh, Kerman

Sufu shrine, Kerman

Tiles in a mosque, Kerman

Our host took us to Mahan one afternoon, a small town about half an hour from Kerman, and we were able to take advantage of her local knowledge at the beautiful Sufi mausoleum there. She found the sleeping guard, we paid him a little something, and he let us in the special payer room of the Sufi saint, and best of all, out onto the roof and up into the minarets- it was such a gorgeous view with the snow-capped mountains in the background.

Mahan Gardens

Inside the Sufi shrine, Mahan

Sufi shrine rooftop with snowy mountains, Mahan

On the roof of the Sufi shrine, Mahan

Despite working in the morning, then taking us to Mahan, Ati insisted on making us fessen jun that evening, a famous Iranian dish with chicken in a pomegranate and walnut sauce. We repeatedly offered to help but she insisted, in a typically Iranian way, for us to relax, and although we felt bad, we were very happy to eat the delicious meal!

The famous fessen jun

We knew the famous citadel at Bam had been severely damaged in the 2003 earthquake, that killed more than 30,000 people in the town, but we love old ruined forts so much, we decided to take the trip from Kerman to see it. We were very disappointed by the whole experience. There was nothing at all left of the arg (fort), and the one section had been rebuilt lacked any ambience what-so-ever. There were strict paths that couldn’t be left, supposedly because of the danger, and guards with whistles to enforce this. Many areas were off-limits, and even reconstructed buildings such a little shops were closed. Add to this a dark and drizzly day, a lifeless and shutdown town because of the last day of the No Ruz holiday, and a very average guesthouse (our first in a month!), and we were happy to return to Kerman the next day.

Bam citadel pre earthquake (picture from internet)

Bam citadel post earthquake (picture from internet)

Pile of rubble, Bam citadel

Restored part of Bam Citadel

Bam citadel

Partially restored part of Bam citadel

Our next adventure was the Kaluts, an area in the desert north of Kerman with amazing rock formations. Our first attempt to see this area involved a suicidal shared taxi driver (texting and driving at 140 kms per hours on hairpin bends); an exploration of Shahdad, the gateway town to the area; an invitation to lunch followed by a lift to the Kaluts by two local men; an interesting time at their house eating a very nice lunch that for them, included copious amounts of opium; a nap; a change of plan due to them being off their heads, and us returning to Kerman with another maniac taxi driver!!

Old mud brick village near Shahdad

Scenery around Shahdad

Luckily, lovely our host very generously took a day off work and drove us, her daughter and another Couchsurfer one hour or so on the stunningly beautiful road back to Shahdad, and into the Kaluts area. The rock formations are interesting in that from a distance they appear to be buildings, and old city, a fort, but on a closer look, they are all natural. We were so lucky to be able to stop and walk around the desolate, deserted area and take pictures, and stare in awe. It’s one of the hottest places on earth, and even at this time of year (Spring) the temperature soared. It must be unbearable in Summer. 

The day includied two other wonderful stops- one at an ancient underground water well (qanat in Persian), and an atmospheric old caravanserai (a stop for traders and their livestock travelling on the Silk Route), which were as great as the Kaluts themselves.

Old caravanserai, Kaluts

A stop for traders in ancient times

Caravanserai, Kaluts

Ancient underground qanat (water system) , Kaluts

Being silly in the road, Kaluts

Scenery driving back from Kaluts

Kaluts village

The third trip from Kerman was to Meymand, a very small and fascinating village, where the population lives in caves in the hillside, and has done for thousands of years. Some say 2000, others say 8000 years. They have cultivated gardens all around the village, with many picturesque stone walls, goats and sheep, small streams, twisted old walnut trees, and many other fruit and nut varieties. The locals here are semi-nomadic, spending Spring with their sheep in grazing areas, Summer in their gardens and only Winter in the Meymand caves, which are apparently the same temperature inside all year round. Although there are about 100 inhabitants, at this time of year, only a few old folk who couldn’t make the journey to the pastures remain.

On the road to nowhere

Baby goats!

Stunning scenery, Meymand

Old village from a distance, Meymand

Lovely ancient walnut trees, Meymand

Man and his sheep, Meymand

The village has been recognized as having historical significance, and is protected and has been restored, although it’s nearly impossible to tell with no modern elements in sight outside (except electric wires), and all natural materials being used. It’s quite popular with Iranian tourists on the weekends, but when we arrived there wasn’t a soul about.

Our taxi driver left us in the care of the cranky old mother of the owner, and we were shown a cave to sleep in. It was very comfortable with electric lights, heater, rugs on the floor, three cosy beds and bags of character. Unfortunately, her cooking left a lot to be desired and we suffered our first bad meals in Iran. Stale hard bread, stew filled with yellow lumps of fat, rancid cheese and yogurt.... it wasn’t a highlight!

Our cave!

Of course, the best part was exploring the charming place, its character a cross between The Flintstones and Lord of the Rings! One main “road” led off to many small paths leading up to a multitude of small doorways built into the hill, stone bathrooms, stick–rooved livestock enclosures. 

Cave dwellings, Meymand

Cute little doorway, Meymand

Old cave dwellings, Meymand

Old vase, Meymand

Hobbit door!

Rock doorway, Meymand

The handful of oldies left behind were quite a pathetic lot, and we felt sorry for them left to make a living from selling a handful of crafts to the few tourists who came there.

Old man sleeping, Meymand

Old women chatting, Meymand

Old timer, Meymand

On our second day in Meymand, we were walking around feeling hungry, when a miraculous group on Kermani day trippers adopted us, and fed us from the masses of food they had brought with them. They were an interesting bunch, very liberal, and mostly speaking English very well. The cause for the get-together was a returning family member from overseas. The lovely woman and her English husband had left Iran after the Revolution, and now lived in Dubai, visiting Iran regularly. Every time she came, she said, her big family generously hosted lunches and activities, like the one at Meymand. The family were Sufi Muslims; a branch of Islam sometimes know as the mystical side of Islam. After chatting for some time, they decided we would come back to Kerman with them, as a big family party was planned the next day, and we were to be guests!! We were a bit unsure, as we didn’t fancy going back to Kerman again, and we had already made plans for our next destination, but they were so hilariously over-the-top enthusiastic about us coming, we changed our plans.

This is SO common in Iran- we make a plan for the day and something else completely different happens. We love it most of the time, and it’s the reason we are travelling so slowly here- even for us!
We stayed with Norozan and Reza and their fantastic kids for two nights, and once again found it hard to believe people whose wage (it slipped out) was about US$266 per month each, would take in two strangers such as us, feed us with scrumptious food, do our laundry, drive us around to family parties and local sights, and only want in return to talk with us find out our opinions about things, and learn more about us. So unbelievably generous, especially as our repeated offers to help and to pay for things were always refused.

Lovely Kerman family

So nice and welcoming and Iranian!

1 comment:

  1. A sojourn through what appears to me as is often suggested 'the authentic orient', with sacred cultural motifs of empire, that draw a viewer into a sense of the 'mysterious tremendous' of place. Though as you remarked there are the platitudes of existence as ordinary folk continue to etch out their existence with dignity and valor. Their ability to extend to the traveler seems to be a beloved duty, as an act of giving returns happiness.