A Song for the Desert: Notes from Iran

The first time I was left speechless was at sunset.

I stood below two mounds rising from the arid ground, a staircase hacked into stone leading up to a short tower on the top of each hill. The stairs had not always been there. Back when these towers were still used for Zoroastrian sky burials, priests had climbed up the naked side of the hill, carrying the dead bodies that only they were allowed to touch. The stairs were a touch added for us tourists to gawk at the now empty towers.

My taxi had dropped me off a good fifteen-minute walk off. The man had stopped to ask for directions but continued to be confused anyway, driving through a bike lane and almost hitting a cyclist before giving up and finally letting me out by the highway. The towers were closed, I understood from his gestures, but I strode on anyway. I could see figures from a distance, climbing up one mound or roaming around the ruins of the village below it. Officially, the towers were supposed to be closed at 6, but encouraged by the presence of other explorers I continued.

The fence around the gate seemed only decorative; it really covered as little ground as possible. So I walked around it, past a sign that read “Closed at 6 PM. Please get your ticket at the gate”. I ignored it.

From between the ruined houses emerged a rumble. A man in a clean blue shirt and a guard’s badge on the shoulder sped towards me on a motorcycle, and for a moment I thought I might be in trouble, but instead he pulled out his phone and typed in “200,000” on his calculator.

‘Ticket’, he said, pointing at the screen.

So I paid the two hundred rial – barely two euros – to the man, and as I walked into the town in ruins, he sped off and back in a minute with a receipt for the ticket.

The Towers of Silence just outside of Yazd, in the heart of the Iranian desertlands, used to be a Zoroastrian burial site. Back when the city hadn’t sprawled so close to its borders, families of the dead would have to walk for hours to reach this spot outside of the city, a place that they had agreed was far enough to not risk contaminating the world of the living. Zoroastrians are very particular about that. They respect all natural elements – that is why they don’t like to bury their dead, thinking that the decomposing body might contaminate the soil and with it, the water supply. So they brought their bodies here where under the open sky vultures would come and eat the meat off their bones. After that, the priest would dissolve the remaining bones with acid.

But because the journey was long, family members would stay the night by the towers before returning to the city the next day. They built this small village of curved-roof clay houses for that purpose.

Now the buildings have fallen into disrepair. I walked past a small chapel-like building, maybe a miniature mosque, through another whose arched ceilings reminded me of traditional bazaars, into a house whose square-shaped rooms were covered in dust and rubble. I glanced at my left. The second burial tower was perfectly framed by the fallen doorway. In front of it, the bubble roof of one of the old houses seemed buried half underground. I thought of Tatooine, the desert home planet of Luke Skywalker.

 

A wane moon followed in time with my steps as I climbed up one of the towers, its pale sphere climbing up the side of the second hill. At the top, I stopped to admire the view: the moon perched atop the mound like a cherry on an ice-cream sundae, the world falling into night through an array of pinks and purples and flaming orange.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen a sunset that vivid.

And suddenly I had to sit down, overwhelmed by the beauty of it all, by my presence in the land of my travel dreams and by the fact that it really existed as a version I had imagined. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt that mesmerised by a place I’d visited.

The burning red of the sunset slowly melted into a velvety blue. The man in the blue shirt was back, revving his motorcycle’s engine on the bottom of the burial tower. He yelled something in Farsi and even though I could not understand him, I knew what he wanted. A little sadly, I picked up my bones and made my way to the gates with the few other tourists who’d stuck around this long.

***************

All my best moments in Iran are coloured by the beige and the brown of the desert. This country so well known for its hot temperature and arid climate has so much more to offer, but between the blue-tiled mosques and traditional houses and Persian gardens I was happy with the regular. I loved Shiraz and Esfahan; I enjoyed the cosmopolitan feel of the cool café shops of northern Tehran; even appreciated the beaches of the Southern islands where I couldn’t swim without being fully covered so instead I strode back and forth on the sand and gathered colourful shells on my palm.

But nothing made me feel as alive as the deserts.

‘Do Iranians come here much?’ one of the Dutch girls asked on the Kalut Desert.

Our guide Ali* shrugged. ‘Tourists, yes, but locals not so much. For them it’s nothing special – they grew up with it.’

He loved the desert, though, he told us. Even when he didn’t have tourists, he said he still often came to camp here. The desert was his home, he joked. We told him his living room was very beautiful.

We were camped out in a spot that Ali had declared secret, far away from the other tour groups but still close to the road, as far as he had dared to drive in his regular station wagon. Out there you would have never known how close we were to the road and cactus-shaped street lights. We were parked behind one of the clay mountains, and anywhere you looked, more of these natural monuments rose up from the desert floor. The ground was hard and often sharp but as soon as I stepped out of the car, I ripped off my hiking boots and walked around barefoot.

We climbed one of the kaluts for sunset. Sipping cold peach juice, I let the conversation fade into the background and freed my mind to wander. It seemed to dash down to the small valley between the clay monuments, sprinting around and rising to new heights.

The sharp edges of the mountains far away softened as the glow changed, intensified, embracing the landscape in a golden warm glow before the sphere sank behind the jagged range and disappeared. A breeze came over us then but it offered no relief from the heat of the day; just kilometres away from the hottest, driest place on Earth – known as Gandom Beriyan- even the wind blows hot.

There was a rhythm to the changing colours, an ebb and a flow: the dark, damp purple after the golden yellow of the sunset, and then an orange afterglow, like fire, as the sky lit up for the last time before sinking into darkness. My mind took it all in, and it found inspiration and satisfying peace it hadn’t felt in weeks.

We ran down the side of the hill and walked back to the camp still barefoot under the full moon, and almost as if the day had never ended, our bodies cast shadows on the hard ground. Full moon on Friday the 13th – I’m not superstitious but if I was, I would have been inclined to think that on that day, the luck was on our side.

In this part of the desert there were no scorpions or snakes so we’d be safe to sleep right there on the ground, on the two Persian-patterned mats that Ali had spread out. We filled our bellies with warm mutton stew and played cards until we couldn’t keep our eyes open anymore.

My last desert adventure took place just two days before my birthday. I almost wished I had stayed to celebrate on the desert. The guide Mehdi, a young guy with curly hair – good-looking in a kind of a goofy way – offered to host a party on the desert on my birthday and to give me a discount for a second tour if I stayed. But I was getting tired – not of Iran specifically but of travelling, and I longed to get back to Tbilisi and rest my feet in a familiar city.

Mehdi told us – me and an elderly man from Hong Kong, the only two on the tour that day – of the parties he’d arranged in the Maranjabi before. Out there no one could tell him what was illegal: alcohol or weed or girls in crop tops, it all fit. Once he had been arrested by the police and spent a week in jail.

‘We had techno music and a lot of beer. I was working with one other guide, I guess he was new. He told the police about us.’ His short stint as a criminal didn’t seem to face him much; it had become more like a funny anecdote to tell his tourists.

I was headed to the Maranjab desert for the night. The Maranjab is located in the Isfahan province, easily accessible from both Esfahan and Kashan – I’d started my trip from the latter. The protected desert used to be a part of the Silk Road running from Asia to Europe. Now, travellers still make their way through its unique landscapes but instead of merchants and explorers, the tracks are now taken over by tourists in jeeps and half-wild herds of dromedaries.

We stopped for a moment at the toll booth where a grave-faced man with a moustache checked Mehdi’s permits before allowing us to continue. And we were off. The jeep’s tyres made contact with sand, and I laughed when Mehdi cruised over a small dune, lifting the left side of the car up for a brief second. The man from Hong Kong was quiet; probably terrified.

I leaned out of the window and suddenly I felt it, this impossible, incredible surge of happiness. I want to always live like this, I thought, sand in my hair and eyes squinting against the low sun, lips chapped, skin burned, fingers tapping on the windowpane in time with the Persian music blaring from the radio. Hot wind on my face, my headscarf falls off, sand in my eyes, sand between my teeth.

After a short drive, we stopped to pet some baby camels, and Mehdi disappeared. When he came back, he had changed into shorts and a t-shirt, the black-and-white tattoo of a rose visible on his arm. In Iran, where even men adhere to a strict dress code and tattooing is illegal, he looked strange but somehow not out of place in this dry landscape.

‘In the desert you can be free,’ he said.

We watched the sun set over a dried salt lake and stopped to coax a dromedary closer to the car. In the darkening desert, I fed him pieces of watermelon and he picked them from my hand politely. His fur felt curly and surprisingly soft under my fingers.

Technically, we should be staying in tents on this tour, but as soon as Mehdi mentioned that he usually sleeps on the roof of his jeep, my ears perked up. The man from Hong Kong was not going to want to climb up and the guide had done it so many times that I didn’t feel bad asking if I could spend the night on the roof instead.

After dinner, after the man from Hong Kong had gone to sleep, we walked down towards the dunes and sat in the sand to talk. The night was dark but I could distinguish the almost mathematical shapes of the dunes rising behind me. Mehdi lay down on his elbows. He talked to me about other desert talks he’d had, his ex-girlfriend from France, the difficulty of getting a visa to travel abroad as an Iranian. We spotted a few shooting stars. Then, a meteor; it cut the sky in half as it fell, burning bright and long, so otherworldly that chills ran down my spine.

The way Mehdi was looking at me was like waiting for something, like he was imagining how easy it would be to close the distance between us and lay his lips on mine, and I looked back at him and briefly imagined the same. But then he told me about his French ex-lover again, and a German girl he’d met on one of his tours, and I saw him and wondered at my own loneliness and thought, this is not it. I will take any chance in life to fall in love because for me love is a priority, and I imagined how nice it would be to say I fell in love with this strange man in this strange country under a shower of dying stars… But in moments of bliss I am so quick to forget what it’s like to be sad, and there, I felt content in my aloneness. So I got up and wished him good night.

I lay on my back, wrapped up in the familiar sleeping bag that had seen me through so many adventures already a little wistfully wondering what it might have been like to touch warm skin under this sky. But it didn’t matter; love or any feeling related to it was irrelevant there, in the vast wildness, under the galaxy. I felt grateful to be alone with my body and mind. A song was softly playing from my phone, one that had been stuck in my mind since I saw the constellations emerge that night.

Andromeda’s a big, wide open galaxy — running from my own life now, I’m really turning some time, looking up to the sky for something I may never find…

I wondered if I had found that something already. I wondered if that something was happiness.

That night, I fell asleep in the desert on the roof of the jeep, my sleep guarded by the Milky Way and her billion stars.

 

Thank you so much for reading!

Anyone planning a trip to Iran? Have you had any life-changing experiences recently?

*names in the story have been changed. I don’t think anything in this piece could get them in trouble, but you know, just in case.

 

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