The desert city of Yazd is the first place in Iran where I don’t stay with any locals. I head straight to the centre and a cheap dormitory in the old style Silk Road Hotel, where I am to spend four nights. I don’t intend to stay so long but the comfort of the place amongst interesting travellers makes it difficult to leave. I spend much of the time hanging out with Charlie – an English cyclist and travel writer coming from China; and Nikolas, an Italian photographer who has roughly taken the same route as myself overland from Europe. Both of them also revel in the narrow lanes of the old town and the friendliness of the locals. Wondering through the narrow lanes one morning, we’re given lunch from passing youths who are handing out meals to anyone they meet due another religious feast taking place.
Yazd is famous for its desert architecture and as being the centre of the Zoroastrian religion. Zoroastrianism was the first monotheistic religion in history, said to be influential in the creation of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Spanning over 3000 years, it was the state religion of the ancient Persian Empires and although there are a lot fewer Zoroastrians today, its culture is still strong and prevalent around Iran, with the symbol of the winged faravahar commonly seen in shops, buses and other aspects of public life. In Yazd, many old and new Zoroastrian sites remain intact. The Tower of Silence on the outskirts of the city was once an important burial ground were they used to bring the bodies to be eaten by vultures so as not to contaminate the earth, which they believe to be sacred (today, a nearby cemetery holds the bodies in sealed cement graves). In contrast to those crumbling ruins are the modern fire temple and the impressive Dowlet-Abad within the city. Both are pretty surreal places to visit – with members of the religion numbering only a few thousand, these serve more as heritage sites/tourist attractions than active places of worship.
Back in the Silk Road Hotel on the night before I leave, Charlie and I are sitting drinking tea in the central courtyard, which is also open to the public as a teahouse. Two local women, one in her early 30s and her 19 year old niece, invite themselves to sit down opposite us and start immediately flirting. I say ‘flirting’ but there’s nothing discreet or subtle about it as they ask us all manner of personal questions, interspersed with hushed comments in Farsi to each other every time we answer, while never taking their eyes off us. It’s common enough to encounter Iranian women who have a hungry look in their eyes…it’s only natural that those who are sexually repressed and made second class citizens by their society, while being exposed to Western culture through satellite channels, will become more bold in the presence of foreigners. But while we were bemusedly enjoying the attention, the management and staff of the hotel took a different view and asked them to leave the premises. Simply by sitting with two men who weren’t related to them, two women were at risk of “causing trouble with the police”. They needed to be asked five times to leave before they reluctantly parted our company, with the younger of the two winking at Charlie before she left and the Aunt beaming at myself. I leave Yazd the next day with a somewhat tired view of my remaining time in the Iran. While looking forward to seeing more of it, the many problems with society and politics mixed with the overwhelming hospitality of the people and beauty of the country, make for an extreme paradoxical experience.