15-20th December, 2012, Yazd
I see the sun rise over the desert as my train chugs into Yazd. The girls in my carriage quickly jump down from their bunks and begin wrapping themselves in headscarves, checking make-up and folding sheets, which an attendant soon comes to collect.
I find the Silk Road Hotel close to the 12th Century Masjid-e Jameh Mosque in the middle of the adobe old city. A sleepy-looking man answers the door. He seems surprised to see me. “Is this the hostel?” I ask. It is. No need to bother with formalities at this hour, it seems. He points me down some steps and hurries back to bed. I tiptoe down to a dark room full of bunk-beds and squint at each in turn, not wanting to climb into bed with someone by accident. I choose a bottom bunk close to the door and doze off, only to be woken after a couple of hours by the person above me tossing and turning. Every move wobbles the entire bed. I begin to feel seasick and whisper up – “excuse me!” The face of a rather beautiful man peers over. “Oh!” he says. “Oh!” I say.
Over breakfast, I learn that Rocco is riding his motorbike from his home in the Netherlands to China. There are other international travellers too, all with interesting journeys ahead of them. I decide to stay a few days and hang out with some fellow wanderers.
If you stuck a drawing pin into the middle of Iran, chances are you’d stick it in Yazd: a three-thousand year old city, built where the Dasht-e Kavir desert meets the Dasht-e Lut. Surprisingly, this city has a tourist office – the first I’ve come across in Iran. It sells books, postcards and some other tourist paraphernalia. The prices are in the official Rials currency, rather than tomans – the usual street method of pricing. It’s another first for my time in Iran.
I’m walking back to the hostel through an adobe maze, when I hear someone call out – “Where are you from?” I groan inwardly. It’s my least favourite question, yet always the most popular. Sometimes I just grit my teeth and answer. Others, the awareness that saying the name of one country does not sum up me, my life or anyone else’s is too much to bear. “England, Scotland, Ireland and Turkey”, I tell him. “Wow!” he replies. We begin walking together.
My new friend is called Ali. As we walk, he tells me a little about himself and it becomes clear that his own identity is equally complex, perhaps in different ways. Born and raised in Mumbai by parents of Persian descent, Ali returned to his ancestral home of Yazd in recent years, to discover that he’s considered a foreigner here, as well as back in India. “Everywhere I am a stranger”, he tells me. Ali takes me on a tour of Yazd, pointing out historical buildings and components of the ancient cooling and water systems, for which the city is renowned. Windcatcher towers known as badgirs sprout around rounded domes of ab anbars, signifying underground water reservoirs – part of a 2,000 year old qanat water system.
Ali takes me to see to see Khan-e-Lari – a historical house and Alexander’s Prison, which is neither a prison, nor built by Alexander. Apparently it served as a school. Those crazy Persians.
Every day in the hostel, people come and go. Mark is also on his way to China, having begun his journey at his home in Switzerland. Like most other travellers I meet, he’s using public transport, but jumps at the chance of a hitchhiking trip to Chak Chak, a Zoroastrian temple out in the desert, 76km from Yazd.
Neither of us has hitched in Iran before, but I’m armed with some tips from friends in Mashad. The trouble is that in Iran, everyone’s a taxi. It’s common and perfectly normal for an unmarked car, driven by someone who isn’t a taxi driver, to stop and collect people from the roadside. It is expected that they should pay for this service, however, some cars will take you for free if you ask. How to arrange this without causing offense and without speaking much Farsi?
My friend Mahyar has suggested saying ‘salavaati?’ to drivers when they stop. I’ve since mentioned this to some other Iranian people, each expressing either delight or horror at the idea. ‘Salavaati’ is a religious word, basically meaning that prayers are offered instead of money. Mahyar, who has used this technique often, claims it’s a lighter, politer way of asking for a free ride, and that people usually see it as a fun joke.
We get a lift to Meybod with a truck driver. He immediately phones his English teacher friend, who promptly invites me to stay at his house. I’m not sure about this, but decide to play along with the Iranian taarof rules of politeness and white lies. I tell him that yes, of course I will come. From this point on, the English teacher will call me several times a week demanding to know when I’m coming to visit him.
After waiting a while in Meybod, a shiny black car pulls over. “Salavaati?” I ask him, feeling faintly stupid. He jumps out and begins speaking in English – “Hello! Where are you from? Where are you going? Yes, I can take you there, come with me!”
We begin explaining to the man, whose name is Mojios, that he really needn’t take us all the way to Chak Chak – wherever he might be heading in our direction will be fine. “No no, it’s not possible.” He bundles us into the car and drives us all the way to the temple.
We leave Chak Chak and speed back through the desert towards Meybod. Seemingly not bored with us yet, Mojios is keen to take us to Narenj Castle, which appears to be a giant sand-castle, but is in fact made of adobe. Mojios claims the castle to be 7,000 years old. Internet sources generally date it from 2,000 – 3,000 years, but either way, it’s pretty impressive.
Next Mojios takes us to see a caravanserai. Unfortunately, it’s closed for business, though we get to have a look around the courtyard and he shows us where the camels would rest. Then he takes us to a pottery workshop, where a seasoned professional is spinning lumps of clay on an old foot-powered potter’s wheel. Mark decides to have a go, but it seems the speed of the wheel is harder to control than it looks. I giggle as clay splatters across the room.
We’ve had a lot of fun with Mojios, but it hasn’t ended yet. He’s decided to drive us back to Yazd, where he wants to visit a friend who owns a coffee-shop. We sip coffee together with Nima, the coffee-shop friend, who also seems delighted to meet us. Mark and I really want to pay for Mojios’ coffee, but of course we fail. It’s always a fight to pay your way in Iran.
Mark leaves town and Trevor arrives. We hang out with Nima and Mojios at the coffee-shop, fail to pay for a tasty dinner and the non-alcoholic beer I’m slowly becoming accustomed to.
Nima tells us someone is following us. It seems we have a government spy. I call Mahyar in a fluster, but he tells me not to worry. Apparently it’s standard practice to tail tourists in this country. “Honestly,” Mahyar tells me, “from everything I know about you, you have nothing to worry about.” Mahyar knows a lot about me, so I begin to relax.
The Tower of Silence used to be far from Yazd, but the city has since grown to envelope it. These Zoroastrian ‘dakhmas’ are man-made towers, where bodies were once left to be picked clean by vultures – a sky burial. It’s sunset when we arrive, the evening light setting off the silence of the place.
I’m walking the streets of the old city with Nikita, a Rainbow hippy from Germany, when I realise something’s missing. My laptop! I run back through the mosque courtyard, down dusty streets, trying to remember which turns we took.
“Wow, you really lost your past!” Nikita laughs, when I realise it has truly gone. I feel anger growing within. He makes me a cup of tea in the hotel near the park where I left it, like a fool, beside the bench where we were sitting. I’m trying to persuade the hotel staff to show me their CCTV footage, to no avail.
If the police were interested in me before, I just gave them the perfect excuse to interrogate me. “How long are you staying in Iran?” asks the cop. “It depends if I get my visa extension when I go to Shiraz”, I tell him. “I am the Minister of Foreign Affairs,” he tells me, “I can extend it for you here in Yazd.”
The following day, I dutifully show up at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It’s already packed full of people, mostly Afghan asylum seekers. I blush in shame as I’m shuffled past them all to the front of the queue. All eyes follow me. I am disgusted with myself for being so white and privileged, but most of all, I’m disgusted at the Iranian government for being so racist. An hour later, I have a visa extension: another thirty days in Iran.