The desert towns and villages were the highlight of our time in Iran. The mud villages and desert oases in the east of the country are lightly traveled and evoke the romance of the Silk Road. We visited the dusty outpost of Kerman, the mud brick citadel of Rayen, the beautiful caravanserai of Zein-od-din, the quintessential desert city of Yazd, the desolate sand dunes of Mesr, and the charming oasis village of Garmeh.
Many travelers to Iran stick to the classic route through central Iran encompassing Tehran, Esfahan, and Shiraz. We encourage every traveler to Iran to venture off this trail and add a few days in the desert. Independent travelers may want to consider hiring a car and driver to get to the more remote destinations, since public transportation is scant and unreliable in this part of Iran.
Garmeh! The deserts of Iran are hot, right?
The oasis village of Garmeh is aptly named. It means “hot” in Farsi. The deserts of Iran are the hottest places on Earth with temperatures sometimes hitting 70C. The heatwave that hit West and Central Asia in the summer of 2015 pushed temperatures up to the highest recorded levels. This meant that a few travel options were out of the question. A trip to the Kaluts (an area of immense wind swept rock towers) and camel trekking were absolute no-nos. In fact, one of our destinations, a night in the sand dunes of Mesr, was abandoned since the owner decided to close up for the summer to escape the insane heat. You might be better off traveling in this region in early spring or late autumn.
Our first stop was Kerman, which was out on the road to Pakistan. To be honest, it is not the ideal introduction to Iranian desert life. It is a dusty grimy city and feel likes a remote outpost on Tatooine, Luke Skywalker’s home in Star Wars! Kerman has a large Baluchi population who are a more reserved bunch than the Persians, and, one suspects, not much liked by mainstream Iranians. Drug trafficking is a real problem in Kerman so there was a heavy police presence. This made Kerman seem less friendly than the other cities we visited. The bazaar was lively enough, there was an atmospheric underground teahouse, and the food was excellent. We had colompeh (date cookies), dates, and rich stews at a fantastic no name local restaurant. But overall, the city was fairly unmemorable.
Rayen: Ancient Mud-Brick City
The windows and alleys of Rayen, Iran.
However, there is one very compelling reason to come to Kerman. It is the perfect base for a visit to the remarkable mud city of Rayen. Rayen has appeared on travelers’ radars in the wake of the tragic earthquake that flattened the legendary mud-brick city of Bam. Bam was Iran’s foremost tourist destination, but, despite an ongoing restoration effort, has yet to get back to its former glories. Rayen is not as grandiose as Bam but it is a beguiling place to live out your Arabian Nights fantasies!
Rayen was completely free of other tourists when we visited. Sometimes being willing to tolerate the extreme temperatures of an Iranian summer has its advantages!
Zein-od-din: Sleep in a Silk Road caravanserai
It seems insane to me that in the past, traders on camel back would risk life and limb traveling across the desert to buy and sell. Although life was undoubtedly tough, traders knew that at the end of every day there would be a well-provisioned rest stop. Iran once had a network of 999 caravanserais servicing the trade routes that crisscrossed the country. Sadly, most of them have either fallen into disrepair or the ones that remain have been converted into markets.
One enterprising family has thankfully restored one of the caravanserais and turned it into one of the world’s most atmospheric hotels. Zein-od-din is a rare example of a circular caravanserai and it has been beautifully restored. Rooms are extremely simple. Beds are traditional mattresses on the floor and the walls are covered in Iranian carpets and fabrics. You don’t come here for 5 star comforts though. You come here for atmosphere. The roof is one of the finest stargazing spots in the world. It is not so far off the road through the desert, but it is far enough away from city lights to present a startling nighttime display.
Sadly for us, a full moon tempered the view somewhat but lying on the roof chatting to our guide Ali about student life in Iran was a one of the more memorable moments in Iran. You can probably figure out for yourself the amusing encounters students must have at university when, after 10 years of relative segregation of the sexes, they are all thrown together without much clue how to interact. Apparently, the men are so distracted that their failure rates are high in the first year!
The majority of visitors to Zein-o-ddin are Iranian, and since it is a long way from the prying eyes of the religious police, it is a good place to see locals literally letting their hair down. The meals were communal so it is a good place to make new friends.
Yazd: the quintessential desert city
Next stop was our favorite place in Iran, the mud brick city of Yazd. This is the one larger city in Iran that is steeped in atmosphere. The city itself is the main attraction, a sultry mix of maze like mud brick streets, small beautiful shrines and mosques, and lovingly restored buildings, many of which now serve as restaurants, teahouses, and hotels. The city is wonderfully adapted to its environment. The tightly knitted streets create plenty of shade and well-designed underground canals (Qanats) and wind towers (Badgirs) keep the city well watered and cool. Wind towers are tall structures that ingeniously trap breezes and channel them into the dwellings below.
Water is such a big deal in Yazd that they have a museum devoted to it. The museum depicts in detail the trials and tribulations of keeping a large desert city in water. We left the museum with great admiration for the Muqqanis, the custodians of the canals who risk their lives to keep them functioning, and it was a stark reminder of the problems the rest of the world faces as temperatures rise and water sources dry up.
One of the most notable sites in Yazd was the Zoroastrian cemetery, the so-called Towers of Silence. The Towers are circular fort-like structures on baking hot hills just on the city limits. Prior to the outlawing of the practice in the sixties, Zoroastrians placed their dead in the towers so that vultures and other wild animals could devour them. The earth was sacred to Zoroastrians, so burial was forbidden to the faithful.
Garmeh: a desert oasis and rare success story
After Yazd, we headed deep into the desert to stay at the fabulous Ateshooni homestay in Garmeh. ‘Garmeh’ means ‘it’s hot’ in Farsi and they weren’t joking. We took a photo of a thermometer inside the house and it was registering 48 degrees Celsius/118F.
The owner of Ateshooni, Mazir, looked like he had just jumped off a hippie trail bus from Goa. When he started blowing on a didgeridoo our suspicions were confirmed! Jokes aside though, Mazir is a real legend in these parts. His desire to avoid the fate of other desert villages, many of which are abandoned due to the heat and lack of opportunity for the young, led him to set up a B&B and camel trekking services. This created jobs in the village and enabled the villagers to stay and restore this fantastic oasis.
The village relies on a single mountain spring for its survival and a well-designed series of canals enables the village to grow dates, pomegranates, and other essentials to keep life ticking over. The camels have plenty of flora to nibble on and decent camel herding practices have enabled the village to avoid the problems of other areas where camels and goats have eaten all the vegetation creating sand dunes and, eventually, total lack of decent soil to grow food.
An alley in Garmeh, and one of Mazir’s camels at Ateshooni.
Ateshooni is one of the few places in Iran with a chilled-out backpacker vibe. The delicious meals are served communally, and we enjoyed chatting with the other travelers. Despite a few issues with the plumbing and cooling, it rates as one of our favorite accommodations of the trip. We could easily have spent a few days relaxing in this oasis, but we had to move on.
We think the resident camels were glad to see us go too since we took obvious delight in eating one of their siblings! Mazir often takes tourists out deeper into the desert on camel back. But, not at this time of year. Camels are stubborn beasts and we think even they know when it is too hot. The camels enjoyed posing for hundreds of photos and even tolerated Paul’s insistence on pointing out camel toe at every opportunity!
Mesr: Too hot to handle
Our itinerary didn’t originally include Ateshooni. We were going to stay in a guesthouse in the village of Mesr even deeper in the desert. But by now, in the middle of June, it was so hot that the owner of the hotel in Mesr closed up shop for the season and went back to the city.
We made a short visit to Mesr in order to see the famous sand dunes and experience new meanings of the word “heat.” Unsurprisingly, it was unbelievably hot. The sand dunes were beautiful and we took a few photos while trying to avoid getting scorching sand in our shoes.
Breaking down in the desert
The drive through the desert next day was beautiful.The desert seemed to change color every five minutes with dazzling sands of red, yellow, orange, green, and purple.
As gorgeous as it is, the last thing you want to happen when you are crossing the Dasht-e-Kavir (Iran’s southern desert) in summer is a car breakdown. We broke down 80 miles from our destination, Damghan, right in the middle of the day and temperatures were close to 120F. We stepped out of the car and all we could see were hot, dry hills. Thankfully, a pickup pulled alongside us and after an hour of attempted fixes, towed us slowly and painfully uphill to a truck stop a few miles up the road. Another hour of phone calls failed to magic us up a replacement car. We crawled into a small corner of shade with our meager food and water supplies. We spent an hour or so trying to flag down a car but no-one was going to pick up two travelers, a guide, and driver with large backpacks. I was beginning to worry that our trip would be cut short by baking to death in the sun!
Thankfully, a haulage truck pulled alongside us and after a few minutes of chat, the driver slung our bags into the truck, helped us into the wagon, and we were off again. He shared his food with us and regaled us with hilarious, and at times scary, tales of his trips to Taliban-era Afghanistan. He delivered oil to Afghanistan on many occasions but one time he was pulled over by Taliban ‘police’. They threatened to execute him for not having a beard. He laughed heartily while telling the tale. Maybe he laughed less at the time… but maybe not! He dropped us off a few minutes away from our guest house and wouldn’t take a dime for his troubles. It was a moderately terrifying but heartwarming end to our desert travels.
After a week in the desert, it was nice to know we were heading into slightly cooler climes for a day or two. The schedule for our travels elsewhere dictated that we traveled through Iran in early summer. This was less than ideal for comfortable travel. We suggest that you try and head here in early spring or late autumn for the best conditions. However, whatever time you travel here, make sure you have three times the water you think you need, bucket loads of SPF 50, and be prepared for rough conditions. Of course, Iranians will always dig you out of trouble. But, believe me, 5 minutes in the midday sun is 4 minutes and 59 seconds too long!
Have you been to any of these desert destinations in Iran? Are there any other oases or villages that shouldn’t be missed? Let us know in the comments!