Andrew Stone explores Iran and is spellbound by the generous, hospitable people he meets in this enduring land.
At the wheel of his dusty 4-wheel-drive, Maziar, a big, bearded Iranian with an engaging presence, warned us to hang on.
He dropped down a gear and stepped on the gas. The Toyota, its desert tyres deflated to grip fine sand, roared up a short slope. Cresting the ridge, the endless sandhills stretched ahead.
Maziar indicated a crest in the near-distance. "We are going there," he said, and gunned his machine.
When he isn't part of a desert convoy, the 48-year-old runs Ateshooni, a guesthouse in Garmeh, a village of mudbrick homes on the edge of the central Iranian desert. You get there from Yadz, the historic city on the ancient caravan route that links central Asia to India, where Marco Polo once stopped on his way to China. People have passed this way for centuries.
Our desert transport was light years from the camel trains that rested at caravanserais every 30 or so kms as they crossed the harsh landscape. The sturdy ungulates still wander Iran's arid interior, and small packs, with a handler nearby, could be seen from the van as we scampered along the highway.
At Ateshooni, there were two camels in a high-walled pen below my bedroom shutters. I went a little closer for a look and one pushed its snout through a gap in the wall. All I could see was a set of big yellow teeth over which flowed pungent breath.
In the evening, after a dozen of us finished dinner of fragrant rice, vegetable stew, pomegranate and walnut dip and flatbread, Maziar settled back on a Persian rug and gathered musical instruments around him. He had a didgeridoo, two ceramic jars, and a tonbak, a goblet drum with a goatskin cover. As we got comfortable with tiny glasses of sweet tea, the show began. He wove a musical spell for half an hour, rolling out magical sounds and keeping a rhythmic clatter going with a bracelet of old goat hooves worn above his ankle.
I asked: "Where is the music from?"
He replied: " Maziar's music," and indicated it all came from his imagination.
A cold wind was blowing down from Tehran when we drove into the sandhills the next morning. We passed a couple of drab little towns and turned into the void. Spinning and weaving, we charged on for 20 minutes before the vehicles drew up. Faded sticks dragged from a dry riverbed were heaped into a pile and lit. From the back of one ute, a big pot of cooked rice emerged, its heat protected by a blanket. Water was soon boiling from a blackened teapot and we forgot about the cold.
In his vehicle, Maziar turned up his stereo. The sound, to these ears, was unmistakable. "Salmonella Dub," I told him, " New Zealand band." He shrugged, surprised, explaining that a friend, an Indian DJ, had made a mixtape for him. He had no idea about the bands. Kiwi beats in the Iranian desert.
Garmeh survives on tourism and dates, which are fed by a warm spring bubbling from a cave in a cliff where tiny fish thrive. Part of the Garmeh experience includes immersing your feet in the cave pool, and letting the fish peck at your toes.
Water nourishes the date farm, just as deep wells dotting the vast terrain beyond the town sprinkle the unforgiving landscape with splashes of green. In the course of 17 spellbinding days in Iran, I sensed there were many Maziars in a proud and unbowed nation, which is full of delights for visitors. I was on a hosted trip with NZ Travel & Tour, an ideal setup for Kiwi tourists given the language and navigation tests. Ali, our driver, knew the shortest distance between attractions.
Our itinerary took us from Shiraz, a southern city with mausoleums for its famous poets, gardens in springtime bloom, citadels and stunning Islamic mosques, north to Yadz and Isfahan — half the world, according to proverb — and finally to Tehran, the crowded capital.
We soaked up the rich architecture and spiritual core of Iran's religious buildings, strolled the byzantine alleys of bazaars, wandered city streets at night and sweltered on the rooftops of ancient forts.
At no time did we sense unease or anxiety. Iran was welcoming, its people hospitable and curious. The hostility directed at Tehran from the outside world was met with the weary shrug of an enduring land.
I was struck by a generosity of spirit. At a village we crowded into the chilly mudbrick house of an elderly woman. Wrapped in thick woollen clothes, she told us she never left her bracing mountain home because she preferred the company of her family, her 86-year-old husband, her goats and sheep and a tribe of grandkids.
She was able to live the way she loved because a business in a city at the foot of the mountain had put money into the hamlet's electricity and waterworks.
In Isfahan, which the French writer Andre Malraux suggested was the world's most beautiful city, l caught a taxi with a guide. The driver had three jobs. He worked for an engineering firm, taught at university and drove the cab. We spent 20 minutes in the car, riffing on the state of the world in a mixture of Farsi and English. I made to pay the fare when the journey ended.
"No, no," he said. I insisted but the guide, another Ali, intervened. "He wanted to practise his English. He is happy."
Elsewhere we spent the night in a welcoming farm stay run by a man with two wives. Abbas Barzegar said he was happy with his first wife but to expand his business decided to take a second. His motive was both commercial and benevolent. Wife number two is a nomad. By marrying her, Abbas forged a link with her disappearing tribe. Now he invests surplus funds in the tribe, which he says helps secure its future.
We left him and drove to Chak Chak, a mountainside shrine, where water drips from the grotto ceiling. Pilgrims have been making the trip for hundreds of years. Breathless by the time you've ascended hundreds of steps to the entrance, the damp air inside is a relief from the searing outside heat.
A flame burns against a wall, and visitors, nearly all Iranians, pay tribute to a goddess called Anahita.
According to legend, the desperate Anahita climbed to the cave to escape invading Arabs. Frightened for her life she prayed for safety. The rock face opened, and she disappeared into the shrine, where the marble floor is wet from water seeping through the mountain. In Persian, Chak Chak means drip drip.
Another striking place we visited were the towers of silence, or dakhmeh. The circular stone-walled temples on the top of low hills are open-air cremation pits used to dispose of the bodies of Zoroastrians, who follow an ancient faith where fire is an element at the core of its beliefs. Last used just 70 years ago, bodies would be left exposed in the pits for desert vultures to feast on. Two towers outside Yadz are easily accessible. They are sites of great spiritual significance, and built to observe centuries of prayer and ritual.
The role of elements in Zoroastrian belief became clear a little later when we stopped at a fire temple. Priests who tend an eternal blaze wear surgical masks lest their breath pollute the flickering glow. One temple in Yadz is said to have kept its fire going for 1500 years.
At Abarkuh we encountered another symbol of durability in the form of a mighty cypress tree. Depending on which source is consulted the tree, which has a spectacular 11.5m girth, is anywhere between 1000 and 4500 years old. Regardless of its true age, the evergreen appears strong and healthy.
Not far from this curiosity was a well-preserved icehouse, or yakhchal. Built from fired bricks and shaped like a beehive, the 25m dome covers a 5m pit. In winter the pit was filled with water which froze overnight. Workers then smashed the ice into blocks which were stacked on ledges insulated with straw for sale in summer. A wall shading the sunniest side of the icehouse helped keep temperatures cool inside the ingenious freezer.
The Persians devised other clever solutions for managing heat. One of the more striking are called bagdirs or windtowers. Tall, mostly square brick columns, bagdirs have openings at their top to catch the breeze. Warm air flows into the column, cooling as it falls. At the bottom of the tower, a soft gentle and pleasant flow of air keeps interiors cool. It is a clever form of air conditioning, another striking example of traditional Iranian architecture responding to a hot, arid climate.
Bagdirs sprout in the older parts of Iran's desert cities. Some have wooden poles which stick out horizontally from the towers. The sticks serve as scaffolding for maintenance, and as pigeon roosts for the collection of droppings, for fertiliser.
In reality it is hard to travel far in Iran's historic cities without stumbling over yet another fascination. Take the zurkhaneh, a traditional gym where men and boys — this is Iran don't forget — build their strength and perform ancient rituals. The gyms are hard to find, often located behind nondescript doors.
The activity takes place in a sunken area, large enough to fit at least a dozen athletes who run through a range of tasks, all co-ordinated by a ringmaster who beats out an amplified rhythm, striking bells all while reciting epic poems.
The gymnasts start with wooden boards meant to build up arm strength, run through stretches and pushups, toss clubs weighing up to 40kg and rattle chains attached to iron bows. It is a sweaty, noisy routine, watched by spectators arranged on carpets and chairs in a circle around the "house of strength."
In some conservative cities, women are excluded from the gym. They were welcome at the house we visited, a sign of change.
That same day Iran's moral police were involved in a scuffle with young women over their head covering or hijab. The exchange, caught on mobile phone, went viral, a sign of the contest between clerical rule and the frustration of a young generation. In many ways it seemed a symbol of Iran — a house of strength tested by forces of change played out against the backdrop of a beguiling land.
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