Crossing the Desert

When my bus pulled up on the outskirts of the ancient city of Yazd in the early hours of the morning, I had been on the move for 4 nights and 3 days over several thousand kilometres of ‘hostile territory’.  Nonetheless, the 10 kilometre ride into the city, as the world began to wake up, felt amazing.  A wave of energy washed over me as I propelled myself independently over the earth once more.  The King Brown’s ability to consistently back up after such ill-treatment without complaint never ceased to amaze and spur me on.

The combination of stunning, ancient architecture that showcases its history of over 5,000 years and its extremely isolated, harsh, desert environment, make Yazd a city unlike any other.  As I cruised through its wide, lightly-trafficked, well-paved streets, I knew that I was going to enjoy its laid back nature and relative order and cleanliness.

Yazd; 'The Brown City'

Yazd; ‘The Brown City’

What I did not know was how blown away I would be by the surreal beauty of what could fairly be dubbed ‘The Brown City’.

I located a fairly ordinary hostel with a heavily inflated price list thanks to the Iranian New Year holiday, No Ruz.  Unable to bring myself to fork out 12 bucks for a windowless room, I negotiated a rope bed on the roof for a fiver.  Although a little breezy, I certainly had the best view in the house.

Typical stunning Iranian gateway

Typical stunning Iranian gateway

Quite satisfied, I went for a stroll and, heeding all advice from fellow travellers and locals alike, made a beeline for the Old City.  Past the last of the Iranian Internet cafes (read: heavily censored) and I was welcomed by one of the most extravagant gateways I have ever seen – Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat and Jama Masjid included.  The various shades of striking blues comprising navy, turquoise, sky and everything in between; the delicately shaped tiles that pieced together to create exquisite textures and forms; the beautiful calligraphic Arabic letters and symbols; and the pair of towering minarets reaching heavenwards, were to become a common sight during my travels in Iran.  As were the cavernous, domed mosques and long, rectangular, garden courtyards that lay on the other side of the gateway.

The Old City, Yazd

The Old City, Yazd

I soon lost myself in the labyrinth of narrow alleyways where the parked cars of the residents of mud-brick houses looked starkly out of place.  Every corner of dull, earthy brown that I rounded revealed a display of architectural beauty, be it in the form of an ancient earthen mosque; a stunningly restored, house of the wealthy, several-millennia-past occupants; or a set of iconic Yazd wind towers, which are the favoured air conditioning system of this desert city.

More marvels awaited me a short 10 kilometre ride out of Yazd to the ancient and much-anticipated Zoroastrian ‘Towers of Silence’.  Purportedly the oldest religion in the world, Zoroastrianism practices placing their dead atop these towers and allowing the body to return to nature as vulture feed.

From the first time I had heard of the very chillingly-named towers, I had wanted to see one.  I had imagined tall, elegant structures like something akin to Sauron’s lair in Mordor.  In reality, they are large, round, tank-like structures built at the top of a hill.

Towers of Silence

Towers of Silence

Despite the fact that the site has become the local motocross track for teens on loud, rattling motorbikes that really were not built for carving it up supercross-style, sitting on the tower’s edge looking out into the dry distance beyond was a very peaceful experience indeed.

As darkness fell, the streets below my hostel began to buzz.  The enormous courtyard opposite – that began with a phallus-shaped pool and carefully manicured garden, and ended with two enormous minarets stemming from a strange, though beautiful, structure that was little more than a facade – filled with Iranian tourists from all over the nation, excitedly enjoying their 10-day holiday.

It was at dinner whilst enjoying an Iranian Burger, which is modelled on the much-admired United States version, that my first preconception was broken.  Two young Iranian women, generally believed in the West to be unapproachable and virtually invisible beneath their chadors, struck up a conversation with me and giggled about everything from my family to their jobs at a local garment factory.

The courtyard adjacent to my rooftop hostel

The courtyard adjacent to my rooftop hostel

After managing to squeeze a blanket and thin mattress out of my friendly hostel night manager, I tucked into bed and looked at the stars.  Needless to say, the diners on the adjacent rooftop restaurants found the sight of this white boy sleeping on the roof, all tucked in by 9pm, quite bizarre and amusing.

When I awoke the following morning with a breeze caressing what little part of my face was not protected from the cool air, I was excited about putting in my first full day astride the King Brown in over 5 weeks and doing so on the smooth, black, well-shouldered Iranian highways I had heard so much about.  Several hours and a hundred kilometres later, I was feeling strong and proud of a good days work.  A few minutes after that and I felt as though I was battling for my life against a ferocious, wind-driven, sand beast.  Having seemingly appeared from nowhere, its billions of tiny teeth bit into my exposed skin as I cowered behind my forearms.  The wind that drove this horrible beast was far too fierce to cycle against and I tucked my chin into my chest and ran The King to the refuge of a small town just off the highway.

Before anything else, I sought to satisfy my hunger, which would always become instantly ravenous once my belly got wind of the fact that the days ride was over.  The townsfolk however, revealed something to me that, having cycled across South-East & Southern Asia, I found absolutely bizarre; this seemingly semi-deserted, wind-beaten town did not have a single restaurant.  In fact, the only commercial establishment was the two-bit corner store I was standing in.  It was just starting to dawn on me that cuisine was not Iran’s strong point.  I stocked up on a couple of cans of beans, crappy biscuits and chocolate bars before attempting to satisfy my next evening requirement; a place to rest my now-battered body.

“O-tel?”, “Guesthouse?”

‘What am I thinking?  If they don’t have a meal going, they certainly do not have a bed.’

I sought out the one thing I knew they would be certain of having; the masjid, only to find it equally deserted.  As the sun set, I sat in an old courtyard, munching on beans and chocolate, contemplating which of the surrounding alcoves I could spend the night in.  ‘None’ was the sensible answer and I left Nothingtown to battle the elements once more.  I came to a very small, abandoned, religious building of some sort in a nearby field.  ‘Perfect,’ I thought.  However, as I prepared to settle in, the dirty old blankets, pillows and mattresses that lay in the dark corners, ready to be slept upon, turned my ‘perfect’ into ‘worst idea ever’.  I carried on, deciding that a picnic area I had passed earlier and that importantly now lay downwind, was my best bet.

No Ruz is the Iranian New Year holiday celebrated on the first day of spring.  As far as I could see, it was a 10-day family picnic.  Each site was clearly marked out by a set of kids running amok and a tent to shelter from the desert sun.  I couldn’t believe my luck; with all of these tents around, I’ll have no problem wild camping.  I’ll blend right in!

There was a little bit of blending as the sun set, with me pitching as they packed up, but after that, the picnic sites were dark, windy and inhabited by 1.

As darkness was almost upon us, it was fortunate on this night that in this site that had been brimming with life when I had passed it two hours prior but was now a ghost town, I found two men.  I had no trouble convincing them to give me a hand with my tent, which they could see would have been near impossible to erect single-handedly in the face of such awesome breath.

After so long out of the saddle, it had been a tough day back at work and I was going to bed on a can of beans, but I felt satisfyingly exhausted and I slept well.  Perhaps that would not have been the case had I known that that afternoon had only been a taste of what was to come – a mere exhalation of Mother Nature.  She would soon show me how big her lungs were.

The following morning, as the Iranian tents sprung up, I packed up.  The day was still and I felt well rested, though hungry.  I did my best to ask a man how far it was to the nearest dhaba and he did his best to tell me that it was 70 kms away.  ’70 kms?’ I thought, ‘That has to be a miscommunication.  This is Asia!’  And off I rode, looking forward to a big Iranian breakfast.

"I'm really in the desert"

“I’m really in the desert”

After 30 kms, I was able to put aside the roaring of my stomach for two seconds to experience a moment of clarity, ‘Holy shit, I’m really in the desert.  There’s nothing here.’  Soon after, I came across a family of 10 taking a break from their travels to have a typical No Ruz picnic on the side of the highway.  As I approached, I quickly questioned whether I was above begging for food and decided, ‘Absolutely not.’ ………….

(And that’s where the written documentation of my epic Asian journey ends.  It is April 2013, I have been home in Sydney, Australia for almost 3 years now and I couldn’t possibly do justice to the last few months of my adventure by trying to remember the details of what / who I encountered, and my associated thoughts and feelings.

I will bring this to a close by sharing the photographic documentation of the remainder of my journey.

Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it and don’t go too far; I reckon there’s another adventure just around the corner).

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