Monday, February 14, 2011

Kaluts And Castles

The past few days have been a demonstration of the diversity, both natural and human, that is to be found in Iran. I had been to Kerman before, but I hadn't really strayed from the main northwest-southeast axis, and this time I wanted to correct that. My first goal was to visit the kaluts in the Lut desert to the north. The kaluts are the largest expanse of yardangs in the world (For those who aren't aware, including me, as I had to look this up too, yardangs are sand and rock formations that are caused by unidirectional prevailing winds in deserts, which create long ridges that can be tens of metres high and hundreds long. For more info click here.). To get an idea of the vastness of the area covered by the kaluts check these co-ordinates on Google Earth, and then zoom out to see what looks like the traces of a god's combing of the desert. From Kerman the road passes through a spur of the Zagros mountains which rise up to over 4000m. So despite the southerly latitude (it's at the same level as Cairo) there was still plenty of fresh snow around. The day we went was the 22nd of Bahman (11th of Feb), the anniversary of the Revolution, and a public holiday. The road was packed with cars crammed full of people and a fair number, for some strange reason, had inflated inner tubes from truck tyres lashed to their roofs. The purpose became clear as we reached the col and saw the road swarming with soldiers. The road had been turned into an impromptu car park as local Kermanis took advantage of the double blessing of a holiday and snow to head to the mountains for fun and frolics in the snow - the inner tubes are used as sleds. The soldiers were there to try and keep some semblance of order to the traffic, an almost impossible task with Iranian drivers even at the best of times. Less than an hour later we were at a road junction in the desert with a sign indicating a dirt track to the "hottest place on earth". I would have dearly liked to go there but unfortunately you need a guide and a 4WD - sadly our trusty Pride wasn't going to cut the mustard. Instead we carried on to the kaluts, which straddle the road for kilometres on either side forming an eery landscape of protruding rocks and nature's sandcastles.

The otherworldly landscape of the kaluts.

All throughout the more deserty parts of the country the principal building material has traditionally been mud bricks (although lately ugly concrete houses have become the norm). The most famous mud brick building is the citadel (or Arg) of Bam, which was unfortunately flattened by an earthquake on Boxing Day 2003. It is still an evocative place to visit but will never regain its previous splendour, at least not in my lifetime. There are, however, many similar mud brick citadels dotted all over the place, although none on such a scale as Bam. The one in Rayen has received a lot of TLC and is touted as the alternative to Bam, but it has been more enjoyable to just stop in small towns along the way, most of which have their own little citadels. Almost all are in various stages of disrepair as the funds and people required to maintain the buildings (mud brick is not the most permanent material in the world) just aren't there. Nevertheless clambering amongst these ruins that are slowly becoming one with their surroundings, alone except for a few curious goats, is far more satisfying for the explorer in me.

The monumental entrance gateway to a mud-brick citadel in the forgotten little village of Shafiabad. Many insignificant places harbour treasures like this, just waiting to be discovered.

Not only has the landscape changed on our journey south, but the people have too. Tehranis are stylish, urbane and sophisticated, looking firmly westward in their tastes and fashions. Yazd is far older and the bustle of the young town is frowned upon, instead tradition and conservatism are the leitmotivs, as is most visible in the abundance of chadors which are in the majority there. And when you descend from the central plateau to the coastal lowland of the Gulf the change is greater still. The Bandaris, as the people of the Gulf are known, have darker complexions as Pakistani, Arab and African influences become apparent, and their cuisine is spicier than traditional Persian food (which goes for sour flavours). The women also distinguish themselves through their clothing, which is generally more cheery and colourful, employing pastel shades as opposed to the black and drab colours favoured by their northern sisters. As well as these light, wrap-around dresses the women of certain towns, notably Minab, like to wear brightly coloured facemasks that, although they resemble burqas, are actually fashion accessories. Despite these differences the Bandaris and other Iranians are united in their hospitality which is overwhelming in its generosity.

Bandari women in Minab, one with a typical, red mask.

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