On my third day in Esfahan I was sitting in the hotel courtyard with the Lonely Planet trying to map out the rest of my trip. My rough plan after Esfahan was Shiraz, Kerman, Yazd, Mashhad, Kashan, and then back to Tehran for my flight out of Iran. However, this left me with a few days to spare so I was looking for some side trips to take from this basic path around the country.
While flicking through the book I stumbled across a tiny desert town in between Esfahan and Yazd called Toudeshk. Toudeshk’s sole tourist attraction is a man called Mohammed who runs a small homestay and conducts tours around the local area. It sounded like a nice experience and when I met two other travellers (Welsh and Swedish) who were going to Toudeshk the next day my decision was sealed.
We caught a taxi out to one of Esfahan’s bus terminals at which we met a young Turkish couple who were also going out to visit Mohammed. The five of us jumped on a stinking hot minibus for the hour-and-a-bit’s ride into the desert. I sat on the bus, sweating up a storm, hot wind blasting directly into my face through a permanently-open window, watching Iran go by. The bus dropped us off at the side of the highway in the early afternoon, farewelling us with a cloud of diesel fumes and a lovely burst of heat from the engine. The sun was relentless and for this reason the town was deserted. We waited under the relative shade of a single scrawny tree for Mohammed’s brother to pick us up and soon enough Reza showed up in a small green hatchback, the rear passenger side all dinged up.
“What happened to your car?” we asked.
“I have crash with motorcycle,” Reza said. “It was ridden by my friend.”
“Oh, no! Is he okay?”
“Yes, yes. No problem.”
Reza did two trips in the car to ferry the five of us and our backpacks to his house – an L-shaped mud brick construction built around a large courtyard, high walls completing the other half of the building’s square shape. He welcomed us to our home for 24 hours and invited us to relax on the courtyard porch amongst a small sea of cushions, rugs and soft chairs. Tea was immediately served by Reza’s wife, Fatima, and tea service never stopped for the rest of the day; I must’ve drunk over 9,000 cups of tea and a hundred kilograms of sugar and I loved it.
We asked Reza where Mohammed was and he said not too far away. Although the business is Mohammed’s the home used for the staying is actually Reza’s. Reza, Fatima and their four children enthusiastically host a series of tourists (mainly cyclists) throughout the year, with the guestroom occupied most nights during high season (winter and spring) and one or two nights a year during low season (summer, when only idiots like me go to Iran). It was unusual, Reza said, for five people to arrive all at once.
Very soon lunch was served and we moved into the main room of the house (one of three) to take our place on the floor alongside Reza and his children (Fatima ate in the kitchen). We sat around a large tablecloth bearing plates of spaghetti with chicken, bowls of yoghurt, piles of flat bread, and plates overflowing with fresh mint. We all ate enthusiastically, not just because we were hungry but because the home-cooked food was such a welcome change from kebab stalls and restaurant fare. After lunch came small tubs of saffron and rose water ice-cream, washed down by yet more tea.
We retired back to the porch to digest our food and wait for the worst of the day’s heat to pass. Tea continued to be ferried out to us on a tray by Reza and Fatima’s young daughter who took obvious delight in her role. Before too long Mohammed arrived and we set about making a plan for our time there. This 24 hours, Mohammed said, was ours to do with as we wished; If we wanted to spend the whole time sitting on the porch drinking tea we could, and if we wanted to get out and about and walk around all day we could. After some discussion about options we decided to wait until 6pm when the sun was lower in the sky and then go for a walk around the old town, before climbing a nearby hill to watch sunset over the desert.
Mohammed works for a small NGO that aims to restore neglected buildings in the region. He is passionate about protecting the desert’s heritage and on our walk he showed us one building that had benefited from some restoration work. We also saw the village’s water reservoir that collects water from an underground channel and cools it naturally using tall wind-catching towers, a house Mohammed has purchased that will one day (when restored) serve as the homestay location, and spoke to a dozen smiling locals. Mohammed said that the locals were initially wary of foreigners in their town, simply because they knew nothing about them, but now they love the trickle of tourists and if they see Mohammed on the street without any in tow they ask him where they are.
The hot wind was getting stronger and it was whipping up a lot of dirt and sand. The low sunlight was muffled and diffused by the haze and those uniquely desert sunset colours were reasonably muted – it was a very atmospheric time of the day.
We started climbing the hill on the outskirts of town and the view was spectacular. A huge mountain range loomed in the distance off to the north, while a much closer range to the east sported a large chalk inscription in Farsi that read, “Peace be upon Mohammed and his family”. We reached the peak just as the sun disappeared behind the dust cloud, burning a deep red-orange colour. We stopped for about 30 minutes and admired the view.
Back at the house we once again took our place on the courtyard porch, drank more tea, and waited for dinner. By this stage I was feeling about as relaxed and content as I can remember being in a long, long time. There’s something about remote locations, stunning scenery, and genuine, honest hospitality that soothes the soul. Mohammed sat with us and we all talked about a stream-of-consciousness series of topics.
At 10pm dinner was called so we headed inside to find another feast waiting for us, this time featuring a mouth-watering eggplant and potato dish. Afterwards, we drank yet more tea and savoured the cool(ish) breeze that makes the late evening undoubtedly the best time of day at this time of year. Right about this point, I thought that life couldn’t get any better than this.
That night I made my bed on the porch of the courtyard to take advantage of the breeze and to watch the stars. At 4:45am my alarm went off so I pulled on some pants and shoes and joined the Turkish couple and Mohammed for a 50-minute drive out to the shifting sands to watch sunrise from the top of a sand dune. We arrived just in time to scramble to the top of a massive sand mountain minutes before the sun tentatively poked its head above a dusty mountain range to the east. I went a bit photo crazy for while before putting my camera away, sitting down and digging my bare feet into the cool sand, and soaking it all in. It was absolutely silent save for a few birds twittering away somewhere in the distance and the sound of sand grains rushing over the top of each other as they slid down the dune. There was nothing but desert and mountain as far as the eye could see in any direction and the only visible man-made object was Reza’s car at the base of the dunes in which Mohammed was passed out asleep.
Time felt like it was standing still and the only evidence that it wasn’t was the slowly rising sun.