Iran travel: Shiraz to Yazd
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley. In Plain English: Life doesn’t always go to plan – exactly what happened on the way to Shiraz.
My experience of Shiraz intricately entwines with Persian hospitality. A well worn tradition in Iran is to offer food, a bed and gifts are offered even if it’s beyond one’s means. For those of us who aren’t familiar with that custom, it can be overwhelming.
But it usually means one heck of an experience you wouldn’t find on any tour; but why Shiraz in particular for me?
The long story starts in Tabriz.
I had to fly to Tehran first because I left it too late to book a direct flight to Shiraz. No problem… I landed in Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport and checked in for my next flight. We all boarded the plane, and then just before takeoff there was clearly a problem. An announcement in Persian had people frustrated, and as I watched people pushing past her to get off the plane, the flight attendant tried to reassure me in her halting English “it’s okay… no problem”.
And then came my saving grace: a voice carrying perfect English explaining there was a mechanical problem with the plane. Well, better they discover that on the ground rather than mid-air (I didn’t know then either what a terrible air safety record Iran has).
Parisa fast became my closest ally, translating the screaming and shouting in the airline’s office, provided company on the four hour wait for a new plane, to making sure the taxi driver knew where my Shiraz hotel was. And then three days later, she picked me up to show me around her city.
I’d already wandered the streets and alleys of the south-side of the dry Khoshk River (it’s just a dirt patch, a common sight in most of Iran due to damming and climate change), found the street art, and been left with a lacklustre feeling by the bazaars. They’re full of brightly coloured plastic goods, polyester clothing and cooking pots big enough to fit a person in, hardly inspiring. Though I will make quick mention of the old caravanserai tucked at the back of the Vakil Bazaar; there’s art, more traditional wares, wonderful mosaics on the ceilings and the Seray-e Mehr Teahouse serving great food (and it has a Western toilet, a rarity on this side of town). I’d also been to Persepolis, one of the great draw cards of Shiraz, but that’s another story.
Now I was going to get to see the city through the eyes of a local.
Over the river to the UNESCO listed Bagh-e Eram (Garden of Paradise/Eram Gardens), full of fruit, flowers and its famous cypress trees. The buildings have been around since the Qajar era (1785-1925), but the layout is thought to have been designed by the earlier Seljuks in the eleventh century. History aside, wandering around all the nooks and crannies you’ll find lots of young lovers trying to sneak some time with each other, boys playing football and (mostly) women admiring the flowers.
Next onto the Afif-Abad Gardens and Palace, the gardens have been around since the Safavid dynasty (1501-1736), the palace only since 1863. Originally used by the Shahs (kings), it’s now owned by the Military Department and has a large display of guns of all shapes, sizes and age. The mosaics and interior of the palace are intricate and show the best of Iranian design.
Then Parisa took me home for lunch.
It’s customary for young unmarried Iranians to live with their parents, which meant lunch had been cooked by her Mum. Plates bursting with rice, green salad, cheese, barberry chicken and of course dessert filled the table for the three of us. Far too much food for me, but the thing about Iran is you will never go hungry.
I really was overwhelmed by the fact I was in the house of virtual strangers, but was being treated with such warmth and generosity. It reached the point that I felt like I had known these people for years. In my mind I was lamenting the lack of this in my own culture.
Life behind closed doors in Iran is very different to life outside them. In the streets, women are covered in long loose clothing and hijabs. At home those are quickly torn off and far less “modest” clothing worn, with hair left to flow freely. It’s a good reminder that the Iranian people are not the same as the Iranian government.
Out last stops for the day were the Jahan Nama Garden and the neighbouring tomb of Hafez.
Khwāja Šamsu d-Dīn Muḥammad Hāfez-e Šīrāzī (1310-1390) grew up in Shiraz, and is one of Iran’s exalted poets. Many Iranians turn to the words of Hafez for help or inspiration, and his tomb is always surrounded by people. Something you quickly pick up in Iran is how revered poets are, Khayaam, Sa’adi and Ferdowsi to name a few.
Poetry, art and architecture are a prominent part of Iran, and considering I was being shown around by an architect, it seemed fitting we would end our day in the architecturally designed Taropood Cafe Gallery. Designed around a traditional fountain, the cafe is built of industrial concrete slabs and columns, with rusted metal machinery built in. A very popular place in the evening, and they also serve great espresso coffee.
So came the end of my day with Parisa and her family. Sitting on the bus to Yazd the next day I smiled to myself about the good in our world. Strangers can become friends at the snap of fingers, genuine generosity exists everywhere and most people in the world mean good and not harm.
Yazd is an altogether different place to Shiraz, smaller and far more conservative. It’s a very religious place; lots of men wearing shalwar kameez, many also wearing head scarves, and 95% of the women were in black chadors.
Arriving on a Friday (holy day for Muslims), everything was closed, except for the Masjed-e Jameh. I’ve seen a lot of mosques in my time, and this one is up there amongst the most elaborately beautiful.
Built in the 12th century, it has two minarets reaching 48 metres (the highest in Iran), flying buttresses off the side and is covered in mainly blue, aqua and yellow tiles, but at night it’s lit up and glows blue. There’s also a qanat (water system) running underneath, Yazd having one of the largest qanat systems in the world, built by some of the most skilled qanat makers in Iran.
It sits on the outside of the old city, one of the oldest in the world according to UNESCO. Some of the mud brick buildings date right back to the year dot, but there are about 2000 Qajar era buildings as well, and plenty that are being restored today in the traditional way. I peered through a doorway of one that had been gutted and watched a builder watering a pile of straw and dirt to put on the wall.
Wandering the old city is almost eerie sometimes. There aren’t many people around, and the doors are almost always closed. Motorbikes come roaring around the corner every now and again, usually being ridden by young guys trying to show off. But then a beep of a horn, and it would always be an older much more cautious rider.
The badgirs (wind catchers) are very cool (pardon the pun). I remember seeing them in the old part of Dubai last year, genius the way they work. My basic non-scientific description: air is trapped in the tower, cools and then flows down into the house. There’s often a water fountain underneath to help cool the air further.
The old city has a few tourist stores and attractions (the 12 Imam mausoleum where none of them are buried, and Alexander’s Prison that probably wasn’t built by Alexander the Great, but people believe it was because Hafez the poet mentioned it in a poem). I didn’t go into the prison… I was told I missed out and that it was beautiful… I’m not sure that was the case.
Outside of the Old City, there are a few places to visit. But I will have to be honest and say Yazd was not my favourite place. But for what it does have to offer, it is definitely worth a night or two. Especially if that’s in one of the traditional hotels near the Masjed-e Jamah. I stayed in the Silk Road Hotel, and would recommend it; the food is good, the room’s are reasonably priced and very clean and the large courtyard was peaceful and green.
The kind generosity I’d experienced in Shiraz was missing in Yazd. That’s not to say Yazdis aren’t kind and generous, but I was there in different circumstances.
Have you had a great travel experience with strangers? Share it with me in the comments below.