Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Kafir In The Kavir

Travelling as a cheap backpacker, reliant on public transport, makes visiting certain places, especially remote, natural sites, particularly difficult. So when my cousin's cousin (Amir) told me that he and a friend of his (Kiarash) were heading off to the kavir (desert) and asked me whether I wanted to tag along I jumped at the opportunity.

Iran is a big country and about two thirds of it is either desert or semi-desert. You can't say you've really seen the place until you spend some time in the deserts. The deserts in Iran are not your cliched sand dunes, but instead are rocky and occupy a high plateau ringed by mountains that are ever-present, which is what really makes the beauty of the area. It also means it's far from warm in winter. What little rain that does fall collects and forms salt flats and marshes.

The tidy desert town of Anarak, nestled in the lee of a mountain range (every town in Iran has its own mountain looming behind it).

Iranians particularly enjoy going to the kavir, for the calm, the wide open spaces, the peace, and to get away from the chronic air pollution that afflicts the cities. The way they visit isn't necessarily my idea of a desert adventure, which would probably involve a lot of hiking, a tent, a map and plenty of discomfort. Instead they opt for running water, square meals and central heating. Not that there isn't a certain attraction to the latter, especially as it allows you to spend some time in the small desert towns where traditions and a way of life that have died out in larger urban centres still thrive. The slow, almost imperceptible, pace of life where people retire to secluded courtyards for the entire afternoon and laze in carpet and pillow-strewn aivans sipping tea through sugar cubes held between their teeth, and puff away on cigarettes, cannabis or opium (Afghanistan, which produces some 90% of the world's opium, shares a long and porous border with Iran and so drug abuse is endemic). But, like in most countries, there has been a rural exodus to the large cities where the jobs and money are. This has led to many of the beautiful desert houses, made of mud-brick and adobe, to quickly fall into ruin as they require constant maintenance. These processes have been exacerbated by a severe winter 5 years ago which killed off many of the palm trees that form the basis of the desert economy - many of the palm groves are still in a very sorry state.

A traditional Persian home with its large, central aivan, the nucleus of all classical Persian buildings.

We did, nevertheless, manage to head out into the desert, stopping off at an abandoned settlement that was built by the Germans who ran a copper mine in the area over 100 years ago. Not much is left but some desiccated walls and underground chambers, but it is next to a rare expanse of dunes; and since we had come in a Landcruiser we said it would be a shame not to use its off-road capabilities, especially as Kiarash boasted that he had substantial dune-driving experience. Five minutes later and we were up to our axles in sand and going nowhere fast. Despite K's experience his car was lacking in essential desert-driving equipment such as sand mats and spades (although, for some reason, he did have a pair of oars), which led to the next three hours being spent variously trying to extricate ourselves from our sandy predicament. A frustrating experience, but certainly one which made me appreciate the inappropriateness of sand as a medium for vehicular transport.

If you're going to drive in the desert, try not to get stuck; and if you do, a spade or two may come in handy.


Dave said...

Hi Erik,

You may or may not remember me - Dave the cyclist, i think we met in Syria 4 or 5 years ago.

Just a quick message to say i drop by your blog every now and again, and it really is one of the better travel blogs out there. Your writing style has a great voice, and those pictures are looking superb!

I really hope you can get a higher profile for it, or that you can get something put into "real print"

Take it easy


joseph said...

Hi Mr. Erik
This is Yusef Behdari from Mianeh town NW of Iran . I hope you had had great time during of your staying in Iran . I need your photos you had token from desert and homes of desert town . they are great . I would like to use them in my Article , Please let me know about your permission as soon as possible before 10th May . thank you very much .

my e-mail is

Best regards