*The Silk Roads
Few modes of travel offer a better means to feel that geography than the humble velocipede As I poured over maps in my tent on chilly evenings a realisation emerged and was confirmed as I pedaled; following rivers is both less possible and less profitable In Iran than nearly any other country I had traversed.
I had followed the Industrial Tyne, picturesque Wye and storied Thames; run the mighty Rhine; forged the Po and flirted with the Kızılırmak.
The largest river here was the Karun. Stretching for a modest 590 miles; remarkably it is the only navigable river in Iran. Rivers elsewhere have been vital for the transport of goods and peoples but also allowing the centralision of nascent nations and communication across them. Its absence here in the heartland of one of the worlds first centralised Empires came as a shock. It means that the riverside infrastructure of trading posts and ports which so defines the landscape elsewhere is absent.
At 1,648,000 sq km Iran is more than three times larger than France. Yet the Loire and the Rhone are both longer than the Karun. Germany has the Rhine and the Elbe. Iran's neighbour Turkey can boast the Kuma and the Kizilirmak while to the east Afghanistan has the Amu, Helmund and Hari.
A combination of aridity and morphology. The majority of Iran is made up of a high central plateau.The soaring Zagros Mountains run from the western border with Turkey SE to the sea at the Strait of Hormuz cutting off the Persian gulf. To the North, the (even higher) Elburz range bounds it from the Caspian Sea's water basin.
This forms an endorheic basin. A region with no outflow to external bodies of water. Most of Iran's rivers form in the mountains and run the relatively short distance into the Caspian, Gulf or across the border to another country leaving the hot and high centre with no great watercourses.
Listen for the stream
that tells you one thing.
Die on this bank.
Begin in me
the way of rivers with the sea.
Normally, drainage systems will eventually find a way to the global base level, i.e. the sea. But in arid regions, these systems can be incomplete; the rivers dry up before they can incise their way there. The Iranian plateau is certainly that. One of its principal deserts, the Dasht-e Lut, was found to have the hottest land territory in the world between 2003-2005 reaching over 70 degrees! (159.3 F)
These natural river limiting factors have been added to by a 7000 year history of using rivers for irrigation on the plain; a process considerably accelerated over the last 70 years of rapid industrialisation. An Iranian commented to me that the Zayande River had been much reduced in flow and length in his lifetime as it was siphoned off.
[Toddler whine] But why?
Tectonics. As well as being at the crossroads of human civilisation and collision Iran is at the nexus of a bruising continental plate demolition derby.
The Arabian plate is currently pressing into the Iranian and Lut blocks, in much the same way as the formation of the Himalayas due to the northern movement of the Indian plate. Comparing the above map of the water basins with this tectonic map of the region you can really appreciate the correlation.
The irony of being loosely bounded by the Euphrates flowing along the Mesopotamian plain and the Indus in Pakistan to the west was not lost on the ancient Persians. Both run for over 3000km. Both were explored and coveted and eventually controlled to varying degrees by the Achaemenid empire.
My ambitions were rather more limited. Find the Zāyandé-Rūd, or 'life giver', (the longest river on Iran's plateau proper) and follow it out of Esfahan east into the desert.
Having spent the morning oiling down chains and polishing rims the bike and I were in good shape as we rolled down to meet Esfahan's historical artery. In search of the natural heart-beat supporting the architectural splendour of half the world.
What I found was yet more elegant man made sophistication but spanning a natural non-event.
Eleven bridges. Each more refined than the next. Part promenades, part dams, part artistic flourish. Dating mainly from the 1650's and the reign of Shah Abbas I but with some stretching back to the Seljuks.
The river by contrast could provide little more than an echo of past glories leaving the bridges oddly redundant. Where the water had gone? A particularly dry summer? Climate change? Irrigation? I couldn't say at the time but later inquiries that 13 years of water diversion to Yazd may be the root cause.
I was setting out on the same cross desert diversion.
Pausing to enjoy the shade of bridges and river(bed)side parks I left the city with a wry grin at the prohibitions against swimming.
I managed to avoid the temptation.
The river delivered me into Esfahan's surrounding farmland well away from the major highway allowing me to stretch my legs along the dry flat plain. Here I acquainted myself with the curious and geometrically gorgeous structures which stand, seemingly unloved and crumbling, scattered seemingly randomly across the countryside.
Naturally I was intrigued and closer investigation revealed the perfect spot for a smoke stop. I was sitting in the agricultural productivity boon of 16th and 17th Century Persia. A Pigeon Tower.
Each, according to Wikipedia, holding up to 14,000 pigeons. These buildings allowed a wonderfully voluminous quantity of pigeon shit to be collected providing a first rate fertilizer.
As homes go the pigeons were treated to an M.C. Escher inspired interior whose loveliness was, in my humble opinion as I sat puffing with bright sunshine streaming and clouds drifting, not at all diminished by the plentiful guano stains.
Pushing on I stumbled upon a rural mosque.Tired, hot and of the opinion that permission to camp that evening would be better than concealing myself somewhere in this stretch of open countryside I settled in to wait at the entrance until call to prayer.
The shift from day to night comes early in December here and the temperature plummets. I was surprised to find myself still walking up and down the road outside trying to keep warm with the sun well set. Where was the haunting Azan that I had become so accustomed to?
By 19:00 my resolve to stay outside the mosque until invited in had done the synonymous opposite of melt away in the chill. So I went ahead and put up my tent. With impeccable timing completing this task coincided with the arrival of mosque attendees. Putting my best, 'sorry for defiling your holy site with my infidel presence' grin on, I shook hands and did my best to explain my being there and generally made some new friends despite utter mutual unintelligibility. The group of three or four made a big song and dance about writing out, finger on palm, the letters 'n' and 'a'. Nonplussed I guessed at 'not applicable' and took this (together with the the smiles, nods and the pointing out of where the toilet was) to be permission for me to camp.
Some minutes later the group re-emerged brandishing a piece of paper with the Narcotics Anonymous emblem emblazoned on the top. I hadn't thought of this during the long and frankly awkward finger on palm conversation. Perhaps because I associate drug use as being a principally western issue. I mused on this odd bit of stereotyping as I settled into my sleeping bag with occasional smattering of applause from the mosque lulling me to sleep.
Setting off early after a breakfast of porridge, banana and tea, my first stop was an abandoned and seemingly forgotten old caravansari tucked away in the tiny village of Bersiyan.
During a lingering stroll around its surrounds I was joined by a friendly Iranian mechanic who invited me to his brother's house for a cup of chai.
Biscuits, babies, beverages and a generally very pleasant hour spent swapping stories.
Pushing on the already parched farmland gradually gave way to increasingly barren scrub-land with the hardy vegetation growing sparse as the kilometres fell away and the imperceptible barrier between this and the rocky desert ahead drew nearer.
Dead straight roads accompanied by cliché heat haze led to a not altogether unpleasant peddling stupor as distances became difficult to measure against nothing but the ever extending horizon.
Dumb luck saw me turn north just as the pitch and direction of the wind changed pushing me along on the cusp of a storm as clouds gathered behind me and sand rushed in curtains across the road.
Thus spurred I made excellent time to the desert hamlet of Toudeshk-Cho on the southern boundary of the Dasht-e-Kavir.
The desert of salt marshes as shown by NASA's earth observatory.
The cycle touring grapevine had informed me that an Iranian homestay here had been providing accommodation for cyclist for some 30 years so I went for a wander to see if I could track it down. Mud-brick walls hiding impenetrable courtyards of which one might catch an occasional mysterious peak through slightly ajar doors created an eerie but not unpleasant sense of utter quiet on the deserted, high walled, streets.
Having wandered the bustling 400 person metropolis it took asking the sum total of one person in very broken farsi for Mr Jalali before I was ushered in the direction of the Tak Taku guesthouse. (I think my broken Farsi may have had less to do with this than my obviously encumbered bicycle; I was being directed before I had finished my practised phrases... probably for the best.)
I arrived to find an Irishman and two Germans sat cross-legged in the living room around the traditional Persian carpet finishing up an early tea with Mohammed and his wife. Have shared food and drinkI was showed my room.
Settled in I went for an early evening stroll just before dusk and indulged my increasingly worrying door fetish.
The evening was spent in a state of perplexed hilarity. I sat cross legged with the family chatting at length with the friendly grandfather whose passion for all things 2 wheeled had been the instigator of the their reputation as a welcoming stop over for tourers on their trails east.
He explained that the volume of people passing through had dropped off considerably in the last 10-15 years as Pakistan and Afghanistan became seen as increasingly unstable. Overland travelers sought new routes to India and the east. Most notably the new northern route through the Stans along the main silk road growing in popularity.
I was interrogated as to why I was single and not an engineer or doctor. My lame replies were met with much laughter. We also chatted at length about the merits of varying countries engineering output (England, Germany, Japan = good. China, Poland, Turkey = bad apparently) and the brilliance that was BSA (Birmingham Small Arms company) who apparently made the best motorbikes after WW2. As you can probably guess I couldn't really hold my end of the conversation-up when it came to matters motor. So after a very enjoyable evening I made my excuses and crawled into bed.
An excellent breakfast of eggs and bread with lashings of jam sent me on my way up the slow climb to a surprisingly high 2500m pass. I was en route to the oasis town of Na'in reached by an exhilarating 10k downhill. En route I was waylaid by Sayied, a friendly young Iranian guy, who invited me to his house for a cup of tea.
Here I was introduced to his family and his parents were kind enough to invite me watch them make lavash. Working together with well practiced motion the mother would kneed and press the dough before tossing it over for the father to slap unceremoniously against the side of the oven. A minute or so later a super tasty flatbread emerged.
Before I left a small bundle of lavash was pressed into my hands and once more I had cause to thank my lucky stars for Iranian's warmth, hospitality and, in this case, excellent bread making skills.
That day and the next the road was tough. Hot, dusty and following a long busy road into the teeth of a headwind keen to punish my good fortune from the afternoon before.
The surrounding desert morphed into a barren rocky vista spread before me changing little through the no-mans-land between the Dasht-e-Lut and Dasht-e Kavir to the south.
But the incentive was good; a highly recommended hostel called the Silk Road in the ancient desert city of Yazd. Exhausted and with the sun well set I crept into the city and collapsed into the waiting bed.
I was immediately infatuated as I strolled the streets shaded by her high walls amongst ancient castles abutting workers dwellings.
Its 3000 years of history and desert location has left it with unique architecture. Most iconically the badgirs which stand like fractal chimneys catching any slight breezes and cooling the houses and workplaces below.
I was both intrigued and stumped by these structures which seemed to crop up all over the city but in my days of wandering I never saw one in use.
A decorative stockade? An elaborate market stall? Frankly I thought they looked a little like immobile versions of the child catchers wagon from chitty chitty bang bang. But you know, not really very scary. If anyone knows the answer do please let me know.
Isolated out in the desert Yazd has been insulated from the discombobulations that periodically wracked Persia through her long history. Left unscathed by Mongols from Chengis to Tamarlane, preserved from the hot fury of Alexander that engulfed Persepolis by her own desert heat, and long unaffected by the Arab conquest that brought such quick change elsewhere.
Time in Yazd feels perpetually sluggish as if not just the afternoon may linger but whole decades do caught in the texture of the adobe walls along alleyways lacking anything so distractingly modern as a road sign. The dry heat and surprising silence for a city of half a million underpins a perpetual temporal crawl. Dahli's Persistence of Memory taken down from the gallery wall and woven into the foundations.
Domes, Iwans and minarets jump out as you turn nondescript corners. Unworriedly lost wandering a city whose hue changes with every new angle; from the deep terracottas to bloody oranges. A fine place to muse on why so many fruit and vegetables are orange. Carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, persimmons, cantaloupes, apricots, peaches, papayas, nectarines, apricots, mangos, squashes, and that's before you get into the whole Tangelos/Mandarins/Tangerines/Satsuma nightmare that is the iconic oranges dysfunctional family. Then there's tomato soup.
Perhaps it was the heat or the fact that I hadn't eaten all day or that in endlessly aimlessly walking along alleyways I had entirely failed to find an entrance to the underground Quanats (ancient reservoirs) that Yazd is famous for. It might even have been the solitude of solo cycling catching up with me. Whatever the cause I fear I was beginning to go a bit odd.
Perhaps this explains my excitement at finding this rubbish strewn staircase descending into the bowls of the city which I verily skipped down in search of ancient hydrological engineering wonders.
Alas the passage was filled in and looked as if it had been for a generation so I didn't get a closer look at the means by which this city with just 60ml of rain a year has been able to support such a large population. The quanats move water underground across vast distances without the need of pumps. Nor would I see up close how Yakhcals act as an evaporative cooler to store ice for year round use in the city with no electricity needed!
After my abortive descent I went in search of some perspective on the city above the cool, narrow, alley rivulets. I began to turn in whichever direction took me up hill and eventually broke the roofline by hopping up onto a wall much to the disgust of a territorial tabby.
Weary from a full days pounding the street I headed back to my hostel where I met an interesting Japanese chap. He'd been on the road (off-and-on) for the last five years through South America, Africa, Asia and was on his way to Europe and had many tales.
We ventured out that evening to the local Zurkhaneh. (House of Strength.) To see Varsesh-e Pahlevani, which wikipedia describes as an ancient sport combining martial arts, callisthenics, strength training and music.
Vibrant, impressive and very sweaty it seemed to me rather like a macho back alley aerobics class. The M.C. behind the digital clock sings out call to prayer style in what was explained to me as Sufi inspired invocations and encouragements. The warriors then reply together as they carry out various actions.
Oh and those big clubs are called meels.
Speaking of which I was rather peckish and so decided to call it a night with a box of Yazdi sweets which I devoured while wandering home past the Masjid-e Jameh Yazd.
Despite my seeming best efforts to disguise its charms behind blur I can confirm it is a very striking sight.
Day two in Yazd had a purpose. If day one had been an exercise in becoming purposefully lost today was for finding Yazd's Zoroastrian heritage. Under the Achaemenids Zoroastrianism was the state religion and despite Alexanders conquest remained the principal religion of the region for more than a thousand years hence right up until the arab conquests of 651. Caliph Umar's victory over the Sassanids brought Islam across Iran but again Yazd's isolation insulated it and the city remained a bastion of Zoroastrianism for centuries after.
Modern day Yazd is a conservative Islamic centre but the remains of its Zoroastrian tradition remain and it has even witnessed a recent mini-renaissance in the religion as young Iranians seek to reclaim some of their pre-islamic heritage. Still the numbers are tiny. In a country of 90 million people only 30,000 who identify themselves as Zoroastrian in the census. (Though one may reasonably question whether this perhaps underplays the true figure as people are reluctant to say so under the current theocratic regime.)
First stop was Yazd's last Atash Bahram (Fire Temple) where the most sacred order of flame is kept.
The temple itself was a study in understated symmetrical simplicity set in very peaceful grounds.
The semiotics of the Fravahar symbol which caps the temple is a useful introduction to Zoroastrian tenets.
The old man in the centre represents a desire for mankind to be wise. The raised right hand shows regard for Ahura Mazda (God) and of seeking his help. The ring on the left hand represents a promise. [perhaps similar to Noah's rainbow.) The outstretched wings show that man should always fly upwards into further progress never giving way to frailty, indolence or meanness. The large ring around the waist is weighted by two gold strings; good and evil. A pious man can move towards Sapanta Mainu (good spirit) through his worldly deeds and hope for his soul to rise through the main ring to heaven at death. The lower three ringed skirt depicts evil words, deeds and evil itself which must be struggled against if one is to fly towards exaltation and progress.
As you can see the parallels between Zoroastrianism and the Abrahamic religions are striking: heaven, hell, redemption, the promise of a messiah (sashoyant) and the existence of a devil. (Ahriman.)
As the world's first monotheistic faith (which for thousands of years right up to the emergence of Judaism, Christianity and Islam was practised by rulers of the same or nearby lands that these religions would emerge.) it is inconceivable that it didn't play a key role in influencing and informing those ideas... Some might say it therefore has a lot to answer for.
Indeed the three wise men of the nativity scene were Magi; meaning simply a follower of Zoroaster.
Despite this relationship Abrahmic religions have often dismissed Zoroastrianism as a fire cult. This is inaccurate, while fire plays a crucial role as a symbol of purity only the one good god Ahura Mazda is worshipped.
The ritual fire you can see burning is claimed to have been continually tended for 1524 years. Some dispute this and the moving around of the fire temples (this one was only built in the 1930's does make it seem rather incredible. The concept was perhaps more glorious than the reality of squinting through a glass at a small fire in a brass urn, still it was a most interesting visit.
Last stop as I ponied up and made my way out of the city was an ancient Dakhma (Temple of Silence) on the outskirts of the city and unused since the '79 revolution.
As you can see the desiccating desert heat had done nothing for my complexion
At death the body would be taken to the summit for purification by sun and vulture.
Walking slowly and quietly up the path to the summit I considered the ritual to be a rather good way of disposal and certainly compares well with burying in the ground or burning.
The quiet solitude at the top was broken only occasionally by the distant hum of Iranian youths on small motorbikes. An excellent vantage point to look back, as if from the past atop her old now abandoned religious site, on the old city and its inevitable ring of concrete sprawl.
A reflective, contented mind is the best possession - Ushtavaiti Gatha; Yasna 43, 15