Friday, June 7, 2013

Swinging to Rayen, Mahan and the Kaluts

FAQ #4 (and 5 and 6 and 7...): But don't they hate Americans?

A: NO, NO, NO!! A thousand times no. Listen to me, hypothetical questioner, of all the major misconceptions about Iran, this has to be the #1 (and 2 and 3 and 4..). Never will you go to another country where the people go so far out of their way to welcome you. Nowhere else will you be granted near-celebrity status based on the mere fact that you reside in the US. In no other place you ever visit will you find the arms to be as wide-open, the smiles to be as genuine and the hugs to be as warm.  In other words, no, they do not hate Americans.

The first line from my travel journal on day #5:  "Couple things: Best day yet.  Lonely Planet sucks.  Coming here was a great decision."

All three of those statements resulted, in large part, from our visit to Rayen.  A short distance from Kerman, it is the home of the Arg-e-Rayen, the world's second largest adobe citadel. The first was in the nearby town of Bam, but was destroyed by a massive earthquake that killed over 26,000 people.

The ancient mud city, built around 1000 years ago and occupied up until 150 years ago, has the look and feel of a movie set come to life.  It lies in a state midway disrepair and restoration, with undulating shapes that brought to my mind Antonin Gaudi's Parque Guell in Barcelona.  During our visit, you could count the number of other tourists on one hand, meaning we had the virtual run of the place.  Plainly stated, it was cool as hell!!  It was like finding this hidden gem that you never knew was missing.

And you want to know the crazy part?  Lonely Planet devoted less than half a page to this place.  I have seen them devote more ink to a restaurant review or to a writer's experience on a particular bus ride.  It is criminal to me that they would just gloss over something this unique and this special.  From this point forward, I regarded my edition with a healthy dose of distrust and skepticism.

The citadel was once home to both royalty and commoners. We saw all of it. Granted, it is not that large but given free photographic rein, with few pesky tourists to get in the way, Yasna and I both went to town (literally), climbing all over this adult sized sand castle and exploring every nook.

Even now, I tried to narrow down the number of photos I would post to a reasonable amount.  Couldn't do it.  Too darned cool.

In case I have not made it clear enough, I really loved the citadel and the perfect chill afternoon of exploration that it provided.  Little did I know that the surprises would continue.

Next up was Mahan, which was as desert-y as a desert could be.  It is the last place you would expect a lush UNESCO-recognized Persian garden.  So, of course, we stopped at the Shazdeh Gardens.  Built in 1850, during the Qajar dynasty, it is the living epitome of a desert oasis, and the current site for picnic'ers far and wide.
Shazdeh Gardens
Going back to the original question I raised, as I was waiting for Yasna to buy the entrance tickets, a little girl walked by.  At this point, being one of the few westerners around, I was becoming accustomed to people discreetly staring at me or politely asking me where I was from but this was a kid and she was playing by kid rules.  She saw me, excitedly pointed inches from my face and started yelling something to her mother.  It was the kind of reception I imagine Minnie Mouse carrying handfuls of candy would get.  The embarrassed mother tried to drag her away but the kid won out. Moments later, a very apologetic mom returned, with a very happy child in tow and asked where I was from and whether I would be willing to take a photo with her daughter.  I assured her that it was fine and even as I was crouched down trying to communicate with the little girl, she continued to apologize.  I then asked her for a favor.  I handed her my camera and asked her to take another photo.  With this, the mom relaxed.  Moments after this photo was taken, the girl suddenly leaned over, planted a big kiss on my cheek and said her one and only phrase in English, "I love you."  and promptly ran off.

Minutes away was the next item on the itinerary, the tomb of Shah Nematollah Vali, a famed Sufi poet and scholar who founded his own order.  It is a pilgrimage site and is plenty interesting on its own, but Yasna had the hook-up.  A couple of words with the custodian and we were granted rooftop access.

This came along with access to the minarets.  One harrowing climb up some rickety steps and I understood why she had opted to wait for me at the bottom.

We were on a roll.  We continued to an abandoned water reservoir.  Perhaps it had something to do with my 5 days of total abstinence (alcohol is illegal in Iran) but I was convinced that with its unusual vibe and perfect acoustics, this would be the ideal site for a nightclub.  Once the laws change (and I am certain that they will), you are all invited to the opening.

And if all that wasn't enough, we finished off the day with a visit to the Dasht-e-lut desert to see the kaluts.  These are sand formations caused by wind and water erosion, kind of reminiscent of Sedona, Arizona with a little bit of Cappadocia, Turkey thrown in.

The area is vast and mysterious, the kind of place where a UFO landing would not seem entirely out of place.

As we were walking back to our taxi, three carloads of picnickers pulled up to one of the larger kaluts.  The passengers all quickly disembarked and with one of the car stereos blaring, they  started dancing.  As I passed, they signalled for me to join them, and not being one to pass up a dance party I joined in, trying clumsily to follow along.  They laughed, I laughed and I thanked them, while trying to continue on our way.  They would not have it.  They were setting up blankets and pulling out picnic baskets and it was decided that I would join them.  Four sisters, a niece, a grandmother, a set of twins and assorted others gathered around wanting to know all about me and, in what was now a common refrain, telling me how much they loved Americans. (Well, to be fair the twins didn't say much).  I soon found myself to be the de facto guest of honor at this family get-together, getting the 1st cup of tea, the largest piece of fruit, the 1st crack at the shisha.  I felt like a dolt constantly repeating "thank you" and "your country is very beautiful" over and over again but I did not know what to say in light of such overwhelming hospitality.  The grandmother, who spoke not one word of English, had me sit down next to her and with verbal communication an impossibility, she just hugged me and gently caressed my face, a big smile spread across her face.  It is hard to explain the bond that I immediately felt with that family. They wanted me to return to Bam with them for dinner but I reluctantly had to say goodbye to them, aware that Majid, our driver was waiting.  

And waiting he was, with a picnic of his own prepared for us, putting the proverbial cherry on the kindness cake.  Proving yet again what a fallacy we have been led to believe when it comes to these warm and generous people.

I was right when I wrote that journal entry. This was the best day yet, Lonely Planet was full of it and I was immensely grateful that I had decided to visit Iran.

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