Old Persian proverb goes “Esfahān nesf-e- jahān ast”: Esfahan is half of the world. We were nearing the half-point of our trip to Iran, and all the kilometres we have driven to date made us feel as if we have travelled over a half of the world. After two weeks on and off the road, after two weeks of sleeping in more or less wild bivouacs, after two weeks of remote destinations and nearly forgotten places we were returning to civilisation.
As we were driving southward along the Freeway 7, also known as Persian Gulf Highway, towards Esfahan, I harboured a strange feeling inside my chest. The first part of our trip was slowly coming to an end, we have experienced many beautiful things in Western Iran, and now we were preparing to visit the crown jewels of Iranian tourism – the cities of its central plateau. The mighty Esfahan, main Iranian tourist attraction, was once one the largest cities of the whole world, situated strategically at the intersection of the two principle north–south and east–west routes that traverse Iran. The far more easygoing Yazd, capital of Iranian deserts and Zoroastrianism. And between them, lying almost at the geographical centre of the country, mostly forgotten Meybod where tourists usually stop just for a quick look. Even the remote Chak Chak, mountain pilgrimage point for pious Zoroastrians, which was also on our to-visit list, attracts more visitors. As windshield wipers didn’t have too much trouble fighting the here and there raindrops during our progress towards Esfahan through increasingly thicker, I wasn’t sure exactly how to handle the shock of civilisation, meaning being surrounded with too much people, trapped in concrete jungle, sleeping in closed confines. Not quite helpful was the thought that my travel fellows, Izabel, Marko and Mitja, would be heading home soon. But knowing that Polona and Kea Pika were coming was immensely reassuring.
There was more and more buildings along the road, more and more traffic, more and more intersecting roads and bridges from where dozens of Iranian flags were flying. Straight to the centre of the multimillennial city we went, searching for a place to stay, for bed, shower and food for people and for a secure parking for our loyal vehicles. Now, after some time, I can admit that I never like coming to big cities. It bothers me that I never know where I will sleep, where I will park the vehicle and the prospect of negotiating all the prices is very unwelcome. I would me much happier to just see the city and then escape it’s confines and find a bivouac somewhere in the open wilderness. However our plan was to spend at least two nights in the city.
I must admit that we were quite lucky. Annie’s hostel in Isfahan unfortunately didn’t appeal to all in our group, having shared sanitary and kitchen facilities and no breakfast, but not even half an hour later and not even a kilometre from the famous Si-o-se-pol bridge we found a proper hotel. Modern style, we got rooms with big bathrooms, clean sheets and towels, hot showers, breakfast, Wi-Fi and all that for a reasonable price considering the concierges wore suits and ties and even spoke English. But the most important thing of all was the secured parking in a guarded side street for our cars. We even had our luggage carried up to our rooms. Hospitality level was superb, but I still missed our bivouacs in the wild. And the name? Hotel Isfahan of course, who would have guessed…
I will not dwell too deep into describing our two-day stay in Esfahan. All I can say is that the city is full of life. From local food joints where you can get kebab only and some bread and soup to renowned restaurants where people wearing white shirts queue to get a table. The green parks and promenades are magnificent. The architecture is stunning. The famous mosques and bridges are abundant. Everything is huge. And everything is bustling with life.
There are two things I find obligatory for every visitor of Esfahan. First is, in the afternoon, to go to the renowned Unesco World Heritage site of Naqsh-e Jahan Square or, as it is more commonly called, Immam square. The focal point of all Esfahan, this 89,600 m2 large square surrounded with ancient bazaar, teashops, famous Persian carpet shops and religious buildings is the place to truly apprehend the vibe and the energy of the city. It is always full of people. Families having picnics, kids chasing balls or riding bicycles, couples holding hands, friends discussing world topics tourists enjoying it all. Have a seat on one of the benches. Take some photos. Marvel in the jewels of Iranian architecture. Talk to people, they will approach you and at least ask you where you are from. Drink some tea or play some football. Just relax and feel the city. Naqsh-e Jahan means »Image of the world«. It is quite easy to imagine your eyes embracing all the world’s riches in one glance as you stare down to the lively square. And what is the most important and the most inspiring discovery of all? No one is in a hurry. People have time for themselves and those around them. Find that in the West…
When you had enough of the bustling square, track back to the banks of Zayandeh-Rud river. The river’s name means »life giver« and it literally is just that. One of the main rivers of central Iranian plateau made the settlement of the area possible and brought precious waters to the oasis of Esfahan. Magnificient bridges were built over it. Today, instead of reflection of the bridge arches in the river’s water, there is mainly dust. The river bed is dry due to overconsumption of water caused by overpopulation and demands of industry. But even if the river is no more, life is still there. As evening falls and lights start shining, the riverbanks and bridges become a popular promenade. Go to the famous Si-o-se-pol bridge, the bridge of 33 arches, the largest of 11 historical bridges over the Zayandeh-Rud. Or visit the Khaju bridge, considered by many as the finest bridge in Esfahan. Subtle illumination of the arches makes almost surreal, fairy-tale impressions. Iranians gather there, strolling around, talking, sometimes smoking shishas, sometimes even dancing, singing, laughing. They welcome your company. And just maybe, if the rain was plentiful and you visit Esfahan during Iranian New Year holidays and gods are merciful, you may see the arches of the ancient bridges reflect in the sacred waters of Zayandeh-Rud.
When driving to the airport I realized that the city never sleeps. Even during the evening and the most early morning hours the streets of Esfahan were busy with cars, trucks, people, lights. But it was all just a giant backdrop of the goodbye from Izabel, Mitja and Marko, and even more, of the welcome of Polona and Kea Pika in a new country. I finally hugged my kiddo again after our longest separation – two too long weeks.
Meybod & Chak Chak
After sleepless night, a quick breakfast in the hotel and the delivery of filters for Ben’s Nissan Patrol we headed south again. More than 400 kilometres separate Esfahan from Yazd. We drove straight on with just a pause to air up tires and buy fuel and some food. In Meybod it was finally time to relax. The town seemed immensely laid-back and almost deserted in comparison to the crowded Esfahan. But the food we procured on the street was superb and very cheap. It was the first taste of Iranian chicken for Kea Pika. The weather changed significantly and the temperatures have risen. It was hot. As we were exploring the ancient buildings of the city, notably the old Yakhchal or “ice pit”, ancient type of evaporative cooler, and the Meybod Dovecote. This ancient three-storey pigeon tower is very photogenic and was used to nest thousands of pigeons to collect their droppings. Today it is quite clean.
After Meybod we headed east, to the desert and the ancient Zoroastrian pilgrimage site of Pir-e Sabz, the Green Pir. The site is carved into a rock face of a mountain cliff above the little village of Chak Chak. The temple itself, with darkened walls from ever burning fires, hides the ever-dripping holy spring and an immense ancient tree. In Zoroastrian legend, the spring represents the tears of Nikbanou, second daughter of the last pre-Islamic Persian ruler, Yazdegerd III of the Sassanid Empire. Chak Chak was where she was cornered by the invading Arab army. Nikbanou prayed to Ahura Mazda to protect her from her enemies, and the mountain miraculously opened up and sheltered her from the invaders. The tree by the spring is said to be the cane of the Sassanid princess. Each year in June Zoroastrians from all over the world flock gather at Pir-e Sabz. Traditionally pilgrims stop riding the moment they catch sight of the temple and complete the last leg of their journey on foot. But most of the regular tourists are happy to park their vehicles as close to the temple as possible, because the road leading up to the entrance is very steep. As you reach the village, the valley below it opens before your eyes and the view reaches far out over the desert expanse to the lands of the setting sun.
Sitting on a rooftop terrace, slowly sipping tea and waiting for the obliging waiter to bring water pipe, shisha or, as Iranians say, galian, was a marvellous experience. And as the smoke from the pipe finally rose above my head, up to the starry sky, and when the chords of live music filled the soft balmy air of springtime night, I felt like I were in a totally different country. We were in Yazd, the desert capital of Iran, where only half a million people dwell. The air was different, the atmosphere was different, and it was quite hard to accept we were still in the same country where we roamed the mountains of Kurdistan, explored Karaftu caves or admired religious architecture in Esfahan.
It was already late evening when we arrived to the city of ancient caravanserais and windcatchers. Our hotel, named Orient Hotel, still retained some of the antique character of the place where weary travellers of the Silk Road sought refuge. Our air conditioned rooms looked upon spacious atrium and meals were served on a canvas-covered roof.
In two days we spent in Yazd we enjoyed its laid-back way of life. During hot hours of the day we ate in underground restaurants and in the evening on the rooftops where the skyline was pierced by mosque domes and windcatcher towers, those ancient natural ventilation devices, that earned the city its nickname Shahr-e Badgirha, City of Windcatchers. As opposed to Esfahan, there was far less tourists and people in general all around the medina, and even those that were there seemed extremely at ease. We got almost lost in the huge bazaar where you find yourself again in the glorious times of merchants travelling in caravans along the Silk Road. Even Marco Polo visited Yazd and praised it to be a good and noble city that has a great amount of trade. Most of all, we rested and recuperated our lost energy as we were getting ready for the next great adventure – The Dasht-e Lut desert.
The coordinates of Annie Hostel in Esfahan are N32° 39.245′ E51° 39.492′. Its low price – 2,50 € per person per night, attracts many budget travellers and overlanders too. The parking on the street at the hostel is possible.
Hotel Isfahan coordinates are N32° 38.690′ E51° 39.093′. Price for double room was 2.200.000 RLS (35,60 EUR) per night including breakfast, price for triple room was 3.000.000 RLS. They have Wi-Fi, laundry service, restaurant and occasionally, when he shows for work, a barber too.
The prices for sights (for tourists of course) are either 100.000 RLS (1,62 EUR) or 200.000 RLS (3,23 EUR), depending on the attraction and the tickets they have on hand. Same goes for Meybod and Yazd too.
The Esfahan International Airport (IFN) coordinates are N32° 44.565′ E51° 52.683′. It’s a small, lousy airport with poor direction signs and no proper place to meet people at arrivals or see them off at departures. I have basically smuggled myself through security to the departure terminal to wish Izabel, Marko and Mitja safe journey home, and then, with help from a friendly security guy, I was allowed to wait inside the terminal for the arrival of my ladies. Other people just had to wait outside on the parking.
The coordinates of Pigeon Tower in Meybod are N32° 13.534′ E54° 01.497′. Ice house is at N32° 13.630′ E54° 00.515′. In the vicinity of the yakhchal there are some restaurants.
The entrance to the Chak Chak temple is at N32° 20.798′ E54° 24.542′. Entrance was free.
Orient hotel in Yazd coordinates are N31° 54.014′ E54° 22.163′, secure parking is at N31° 54.037′ E54° 22.196′. Double room costs 3.000.000 RLS (48,54 EUR) per night including breakfast.