The Silk Road, China

Monday, 30 April 2007

Yazd - kicking back with a Russian beer in the desert

Marco Polo passed through this oasis town on the Silk Road. Its setting, high on the Iranian plateau is dramatic: sandwiched between the Dasht-e Kavis desert to the north and the Dasht-e Lut desert to the south with snow capped mountains including the 4000m+ Mount Sir in the distance.

The maze-like old city is light brown; it is entirely constructed from mud and straw. Rising out of its lanes are numerous badgirs - wind towers designed to circulate breeze into the buildings below. Thanks to these and to a (necessary) local obsession and expertise in distributing precious water through underground qanats, our stay was extremely comfortable in the desert.

Wind towers

Our hotel, aptly named The Silk Road Hotel, was one of the best we have found so far: a restored traditional house, its rooms are set around a tranquil courtyard with a fountain at its centre. Many a happy hour was whiled away during the heat of the day - reclining on the elevated tables, sipping sweet black tea, playing chess and reading.

The hotel stocked the finest beer in Iran. When I say beer, of course I mean non alcoholic malt drink. At worst, this tastes like cold Horlicks; at best it's a passable attempt at the amber nectar. Our Russian discovery, with a subversive 0.5% alcohol, came as a major excitement - we had been without beer for over a week and would settle for anything that passed as the ice cold refreshment we so missed. It also provided another excuse not to over-exert ourselves.

When we did venture out of our little beer soaked paradise, we discovered that Yazd remains home to a number of Zoroastrians - the religion of the First Persian Empire (see Persepolis) and one of the first religions to put forward the idea of a single, omnipotent God. This God is represented (rather underwhelmingly in my view!) in an eternal flame in Yazd which is said to have been burning since 470AD.

Far more impressive were the Zoroastrian 'Towers of Silence.' In order to preserve the purity of the elements, the Zoroastrians refuse to either bury or cremate their dead. Instead, they are simply left in the Towers of Silence. Priests watch over the bodies, to see which eye is plucked out by the vultures first - it is believed to be a sign for the afterlife. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this practice has been discontinued since the 1960s.

The Towers offered a stunning view over Yazd and out to the desert and mountains beyond. The city has grown considerably beyond the Old City and now has population of 400k. But from the hilltop outside Yazd, the Towers offered exactly the tranquility their name suggests.


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