The boulevard of broken dreams

The dusty road through the dusty heartland around Yazd is not untrodden by tourists, but without the lure of significant sights they are disinclined to linger. No more so than today when an actual sandstorm is blowing out of lowering black clouds, obscuring otherwise photogenic mountains and thwarting a thousand potential photos. But this unprepossessing landscape has not thwarted the dreams of a surprising number of budding entrepenurs. Just look at our lunch stop, a huge caravanserai enthusiastically renovated only recently despite its location beside a 3000 year old village abandoned some 50 years ago when its water dried up. Could it be not ‘despite’ but ‘because of’?  Yet if this is the case their business model is even more opaque – Yomadic, with its off-the-beaten track ethos is the only tour in Iran likely to find the set-up at all compelling, and even we have turned down the opportunity to spend the night, a decision instantly validated by a quick trip to any of the bathrooms. The sole other visitors – a car load of more than usually haughty French and their guide have even brought a picnic to eat outside and only reluctantly buy tea to wash down the dust.

Caravanserai number 1: Even the chairs are not quite ready for prime time

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One look at the tea arrangements and the French dissolve in panic.

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But the 3000 year-old abandoned village is suitably photogenic

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I make my way down to an aqueduct that looks suspiciously Roman (the Persians had other ways of moving water) but no-one knows anything about it.

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On the other side of Yazd yet another caravanserai enterprise is in the process of failing even more precipitously. In preparation for our planned overnight Nate and Vahid have been calling ahead regularly to remind management of our needs for a towel each as well as clean bathrooms; maybe too assiduously for they have stopped returning our calls. All is explained when we arrive at the ancient ruined fort they are also promoting, for in addition to being padlocked the fort’s doors are sealed up with tape informing anyone interested that the electricity bill is well and truly in arrears (presumably the phone is also cut off). Only a sad and underfed donkey marks the ambitious ‘zoological park’ advertised to circumscribe the moat. Fortunately long experience with rural entrepeneurs has ensured the existence of plans B and C. Plan B suffices and we spend a cozy night at the only renovated caravanserai in Iran with a feasible business plan: reasonably comfortable beds and pillows, crisp, clean sheets and cozy blankets, heaters, a towel each and excellent food. Only the fact that the (impeccable) toilets and showers are at the opposite end of the building is somewhat of an inconvenience when it becomes my turn to get the 24 hour stomach bug that has been passing around the minibus.

The fort looks fascinating.

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Pity about the utility bills.

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Only the donkey remains from the wildlife park

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Our plan B caravanserai, at 4am during one of my trips to the other side of the building. Note the dinky sleeping cabins.

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Not surprisingly, absence of opportunities in the environs has led what tourists there are to descend on Yazd, which is coping only fitfully with this somewhat ill-deserved popularity. Yazdis are described as ‘shy’ which translates to gloomy, and they are less inclined to effusive friendliness on the street. Still Yazd is ripe for other night-time adventures  – Nate leads those inclined off to sneak into and up a poorly secured minaret for a bird’s eye view over the town, narrowly escaping detection by the security guards. A good time is had by all, especially those of us who turned down this very potentially once in a life-time opportunity.

Another once in a lifetime experience in Yazd. Synchronized calisthenics. Vahid represents us splendidly.

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They start off with literally 100 pushups.

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Vahid poses happily for pictures once the ordeal is over.

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But is less excited when Sam (our Australian marathoner) outdoes him even in a headscarf

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Yazd is rather more famous for its Zoroastrian Towers of Silence where corpses were left for vultures to pick off the meat.

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The practice ended about 50 years ago when the city started encroaching on the smell. There are still bones (hopefully not human) inside, but the vultures have left.

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Persepolis! Words can’t begin to describe. We are told bitterly that most of the good bits are in the British Museum.

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The tombs of the kings, note scale

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Springtime in Shiraz

 The stereotypes are right! Shiraz really does have it all. While its architecture is not as absolutely gorgeous as Isfahan and it is not as full of significant sights, we are by now totally mosqued out so it really doesn’t matter. While its artisans are not as ostentatiously skilled, the bazaar at half the size is so much more approachable and if possible even cheaper. While its streets are not as wide they are as clean and well-cared for plus they are replete with cozy hipster cafes serving hipster food, which we devour as ravenously as though we haven’t eaten anything for 10 days rather than vast traditional Persian meals twice a day. Best of all its gardens are a marvel and its citizens, knowing they have a reputation to uphold, treat us with such solemn and benign kindness, sprinkled so liberally with many sincere invitations (even our taxi driver to the train station wants to take us home for dinner and insists on giving us his business card so we can avail ourselves next time) that if we accepted them all they would be cooking for a week.

One last mosque. We get here at 7:30am to witness the sun rising through the stained glass windows and strong arm the self-absorbed selfies out of the way to get the full effect.

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The last inevitable school trip is taking it far too seriously to crack a smile for us.

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Shiraz is all about the elegance of flowers.

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Hipster culture means we are spared another Persian meal.

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Of course no wrap-up would be complete without a mail experience, and here Shiraz too, outdoes itself. Somewhat optimistically I suspect, I am hoping to divest myself of some of the weight associated with the remainder of my warm clothes (I can only imagine US customs interest in a package from Iran mail). Unfortunately Vahid’s confidence in where the post office is located, is not shared by a number of the people bustling around the area he has vaguely indicated, none of whom (unusually) speak English. Trying to interpret fish-like movements of the hands and equally vague ‘about 2 or 3km’ pronouncements gets me nowhere and in desperation I bring out my long-neglected GT in order to accost the little man on the corner innocently reading the newspaper.

Success! After a quick cell phone consultation he leads me purposefully to his car. This after all is Shiraz so I hop in thanking him profusely, and imagining another of the ‘and guess what it was just around the corner’ stories I have been hearing sporadically all week. But no! it is not around the corner, nor is it anywhere near Vahid’s vague gesticulations. Neither is it on this side of the bridge, nor in the upscale suburbs on the other side. A little later along the highway signs for the airport appear. ‘Not airport?’ I inquire a little anxiously fearing a misunderstanding; ‘Post, Post’ he assures me with the satisfaction of having acquired his first English word. Sure enough after about 30 minutes he deposits me with a flourish at the front door of the massive regional post office just before it closes for the weekend, firmly brushes off my attempts to pay him a legitimate taxi fare and tootles off, presumably back to the center of town to finish off his newspaper. I complete my transaction and hop on the sparkling new subway for the return journey.

My own expert parcel packer tells me I can track its progress on their website, but has no suggestions about what to do if it doesn’t arrive.

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It is our last evening and we are ending our tour at the garden tomb of Shiraz’s most famous son, the Sufi poet Hafez. Tout Shiraz is here to commune with the poet, smell the roses, eat ice-cream and meet their friends. Vahid tells us Hafez’s story and quotes some of his most famous verses. Even without translation there isn’t a dry eye in the house. ‘if you want to help us’ he says at the end. ‘Tell your friends that we are not terrorists and that Iran is a safe country, ask them to please come to visit’.

Hafez’s tomb. I am just trying to remember the last time I was in a community that had gathered together spontaneously because of poetry.

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Dave and I squeeze in one last overnight train trip back to Tehran. They conveniently overlook that it is illegal for us to travel unescorted.

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I am so, so sad to leave Iran. They are not terrorists, they are the kindest and most friendly people I have met in this whole trip and it is such a safe country I don’t think twice about leaving my purse on a seat while I go to the bathroom or hopping into a car with a stranger. I can’t wait to come back again. I am sure by then they will have discovered sushi.

Au revoir Tehran

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