Off-limits to tourists for decades, Iran is at last opening up, offering the chance to visit fairy-tale cities, ancient historic sites — and the hottest place on earth.
By Nick Middleton
Unsurprisingly, Amir Shafi Abadi lived in the village of Shafi Abad. He had done all his life, herding sheep and growing dates on the edge of the Lut Desert. But change was in the air and Amir sensed an opportunity. We were sitting cross-legged on a carpet drinking black tea in his newly built courtyard. He was preparing for a surge of foreign visitors.
Amir’s village is the last settlement before a 190km stretch of desert, an area under consideration as a Unesco World Heritage Site thanks to its unique landscape. It also happens to be where the hottest temperature ever recorded on the Earth’s surface was logged. In 2005, a global satellite survey registered a ground temperature of 70.7C.
This is why I’d come. I’m attracted to extreme locations. Having already trekked in the world’s hottest place in terms of average air temperature (Ethiopia’s Danakil Desert), I was eager to add the Lut to my list. I had long known about this region but never dared to imagine I’d actually be here.
Now, the opening of Iran to westerners, following last year’s nuclear deal, had given me the chance. The UK Foreign Office has dropped its warning against visiting the country; British Airways, Air France and KLM are all restarting flights; tour operators are competing to launch new itineraries and the sense of opportunity has even reached little Shafi Abad, on the edge of the Lut Desert.
The skywas cerulean blue; the sunshine intense. There was not a breath of wind to leaven its fierce heat
Accommodation at Amir’s was arranged along two sides of his compound: simple sleeping spaces divided by traditional palm-frond partitions. He was certainly well located for the desert, while simultaneously close enough to the snow-capped Sirch Mountains for them to peep over the high mud-brick walls.
But his secret weapon was his wife Zahra’s cooking. We were reclining after a lunch of kashk-e bademjan, a thick aubergine dip with fried onions and whey, scooped up with flatbread. Zahra had baked the bread in the outdoor clay oven next to their small kitchen garden, the source of the bowls full of fresh herbs to sprinkle over our meal.
Whey, a thick byproduct of milk, is a popular ingredient in Persian cooking, Amir explained as we lounged on plump cushions. There was some discussion before — with the aid of his iPhone’s bilingual dictionary app—I understood what he was referring to. Instantly I thought of Little Miss Muffet, the nursery rhyme character, perched on her tuffet. It was not an image I’d expected to encounter on the edge of the Lut Desert.
South-east Iran is full of dramatic imagery, both real and surreal. Midway between the two lies Bam, home of the world’s largest adobe citadel, where my journey to the Lut had begun after an internal flight from Tehran.
Bam’s ancient for tress was devastated by an earthquake in 2003, and the local authorities have been rebuilding ever since. Today, much of it has risen again out of the desert, like a giant’s sandcastle on the beach.
Bam dates back at least to 500BCandsits at a junction of Silk Road trade routes threaded through the surrounding desert. Following in the footsteps of Marco Polo, I traced one of these routes westward. The highway leading out of town was lined with cartoon-style tiled hoardings of local characters martyred in the Iran-Iraq war, a terrible encounter that resulted in up to a million casualties In the 1980s.
An hour or so of arid, feature less plain later, I saw men standing on walls to pick almonds from skeletal trees on the outskirts of Mahan, a small town known for its shrine to a renowned Persian scholar, mystic and poet. Shah Nematollah Vali died in 1431, aged 101, and his mausoleum complex was a maze of shimmering blue tiles topped by a turquoise dome.
Kerman, another ancient trading hub just down the road, is the provincial capital. Its mud-brick core boasts the country’s longest bazaar, stretching for more than a kilometer beneath an endless series of shady domes that echo to the tapping of coppersmiths.
This is Iran’s second largest province, famed for its pistachios and spices. “Taking cumin to Kerman” is an Iranian way of describing a pointless course of action, akin to the British idiom concerning coals and Newcastle. I stocked upon pistachios for the drive across the Sirch Mountains.
Bewildered by the range on offer, I chose the recommended akbari nuts, long and extra tasty, so my guide assured me, and not because they coincidentally bore his family name.
Mohammad Reza Akbari drove a car assembled in Tehran, a hybrid model called “Horse”, made of Peugeot and Chinese parts, with an engine possibly from Italy, so he thought. It laboured up The highway that wound its way through scenery put together in prehistoric times: spectacular displays of gigantic rock strata that had been folded, crumpled and left to bake for eternity in the desert sun.
alleys were pockmarked with squat, biscuit-coloured dwellings, many dug into the hillsides to provide relief from the summer heat. In front of the houses were small groves of apricot and apple trees, some struggling into bloom, tiny pink spots in the dun-coloured landscape.
Spring is one of the best times to visit the Lut. Granted, I didn’t experience the heat at its most ferocious, but it was oven-hot, even in late February. Summer is when the mercury peaks but this is also the time of the Wind of 120Days.
This north-easterly can blow for days on end, reaches hurricane force, and whips up great billowing clouds of hot sand and dust. Further east, this gritty gale strips trees of their leaves and causes structural damage to buildings due to sandblasting. The Wind of 120 Days is also responsible for the Lut’s dramatic terrain.
Millions of years of sand blasting have produced thousands of streamlined ridges known locally as kaluts, wind-carved grooves in the landscape on a huge scale. Some of these ridges are tens of meters high and several kilometers long. They occupy an area of nearly 8,000squarekilometres.
Mohammad Reza and I arrived in mid-afternoon, after our lunch with Amir. We left the car and marched into the hyper-arid sculpture park, set on climbing the highest ridge we could find. The sky was cerulean blue; the sunshine intense. There was not a breath of wind to leaven its fierce heat.
We trudged across the otherworldly topography, along wind-scoured mini ravines loaded with dunes, past gnarled rock fingers pointing towards the heavens.
A couple of hours into the kaluts we selected the highest ridge and began to clamber upwards. Exhausting cascades of sand thankfully made way for firmer surfaces, some like walking on crunchy breadcrumbs, others cemented hard and sound less with salt.
Approaching the top, I was sucking the warm air into my lungs. Mohammad Reza was there already, just smiling at the vista. I felt my jaws lowly drop, as if by some means it had become unusually heavy. This was followed by a sharp and in voluntary intake of breath. Spread out in front of where I stood, a good 60 meters above the landscape, was an unobstructed, 360-degree, cliff-edge panorama of the kaluts.
As the sun slowly descended, the colours that had shifted from sandy yellows through a spectrum of terracotta now approached rose-pink. Nearing the car once more, I encountered the first buzzing fly, but it was listless and didn’t stay long to spoil the show.
Yazd, a ‘very fine and noble’ settlement, according to Marco Polo, is a city like no other. It was also an appropriate place in which to round off my desert trip after a day’s driving from the kaluts.
Yazd’s historic adobe centre is one of the oldest towns on Earth, with a skyline dominated by wind-catchers, traditional vented tower structures designed to channel winds from the rooftops down inside buildings to cool the rooms below. Like Bam, Mahan, Kerman, and even Amir’s kitchen garden, Yazd has thrived in the arid desert thanks to an ingenious ancient Persian technology.
All are nourished by underground canals, or qanats, a secret irrigation system that has been flowing since the earliest of times. Many Iranian qanats have been channelling water from aquifers for 5,000 years. One in Bam may be 8,000 years old. Yazd has probably the largest network of qanats anywhere in Iran, and includes the longest of them all, the Zarch qanat, more than 80 km in length.
Its long history as a desert trading centre has left Yazd with an assortment of elderly merchants’ buildings, some of which now serve as hotels. I stayed in one, reached via a warren of narrow, covered walkways that scurry through the bazaar, dipping left into a still narrower alley just after a carpet shop.
The passageways must have been imbued with some sort of magical properties because they had transported me back in time. I emerged into a courtyard fit for a sultan, a Persian dreamland with a trickling fountain and white lilies sprouting from improbable flower beds.
A group of young women were enjoying a hubble-bubble pipe on one of the many carpet-covered day beds, a couple were eating dinner on another. There were ornately carved window-frames and lavish balconies lit by oil lamps.
I felt like Alice after following the white rabbit down the hole, only I’d emerged into the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. South-east Iran had been full of the unexpected, from the five types of pistachio to boiled beetroot served with scrambled eggs at breakfast, to the un-mistakable scent of saffron that wafted from one of my bath towels.
Tucking into a dinner of juicy Yazdi meat balls in the hotel’s fairytale courtyard, Mohammad Reza hit me with one last revelation. We were reminiscing about the Lut, and he mentioned its sand dunes. “The biggest in the world,” he said in passing. “Beyond the kaluts they are 500 metres high.”
My brow furrowed. A number of places lay claim to the world’s highest dunes, including Namibia and the Badain Jaran Desert in China. I had climbed one in the Badain Jaran and it was well over 400metres, but I’d never heard of such whoppers in Iran. It struck me that, to western minds, this corner of Asia remains almost as mysterious as it was during Marco Polo’s time.
It gave me a very good reason to plan another visit someday. Nick Middleton is a fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford, and specialises in desertification. His books include ‘Going to Extremes’ (2001) and most recently ‘An Atlas of Countries that Don’t Exist’ (2015)