Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Mud City

After 5 minutes walking around we know we like Yazd, but more importantly, that we like Iran. After a couple of nil-nil draws in Tabriz and Tehran, we've scored a hat-trick and we're going to Wemberleeee, ta ra, ta ra. It is Friday and the city is asleep, the streets are deserted. James, the English chap we met in Syria, is here and giving us the "orientation" tour: "So this is Khomeini Street, and that's Freedom Square" (Every single Iranian town has a Khomeini St. and a Freedom Square.) He's staying in the most-recommended hotel for backpackers in the whole of Iran - The Silk Road Hotel. Everyone we know who has been here has stayed there, so of course, when we arrived on the night train from Tehran, we made a bee-line for it. It is full. Fortunately the owner has another equally good hotel just around the corner. Both hotels are traditional houses built around a courtyard and with a roof terrace giving views over the old city.
James & Gayle in the Jameh mosque

Yazd sits on the edge of the desert, between two ranges of hills and from these hills run a series of underground tunnels (qanats) that used to bring cool fresh water to the residents. Throughout the old city are covered stairwells that descend to cool rooms where water could be drawn. It is warm as we walk around and we are glad we've come south. We are told that the city is like an oven in the summer. The old part of the city is a maze of mudbrick buildings and alleyways, mercifully free of traffic, with courtyard houses with high walls and old wooden doors, mosques with blue-tiled domes, a covered bazaar, and peaking out above everything are the windtowers. These towers are designed to catch the breeze, and through a clever design, draw the air downwards to cool the building below. It helps explain how the city has existed in such harsh terrain for so many years -a man-made oasis. We are in Silk Road territory here - Marco Polo passed through on his travels and the bazaar still sells silk cloth.

One day we share a taxi with James and Pierre, another traveller, to visit Kharanaq. It's an old mud-brick village that has been all but abandoned for a new village of concrete breeze-block houses. The old adobe houses are ruined, but you can still wander down the covered alleys and climb up onto the roofs for a view of the countryside. An old caravanserai has been brilliantly restored but stands sadly empty and locked up except when tourists arrive. It would make an excellent hotel - as it was when it was a staging post on the route to Yazd.

Because of the heat, Yazd takes a siesta in the afternoons. The main streets are deserted and the shops close up. But in the evening it all comes back to life and the pavements and roads are busy with people. We are greeted and welcomed by so many passersby that I end up with an idiotic grin on my face. Women smile at Gayle and young men call out "Hello, how are you?" in our ears. The city feels more conservative than Tehran - principly because nearly all the women are wearing black chadors, even little girls of 5 and 6. In comparison the young men are like peacocks - although so many look like extras from seventies cop shows (more Sweeney than Starsky) - lots of long coiffured hair and central partings. One man, in high waisted brown flares and tight black t-shirt, looked like he'd just stepped out of the Wigan Casino. Keep The Faith. The faith here is of course Shia Islam and as we are staying right next door to the marvellous Friday (main) Mosque, which has a sound system to shame any Northern Soul all-nighter, we have found the early morning call to prayer a little lively to say the least. But this has become a normal state of affairs for us now.

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