Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane


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Magic carpet ride

If you’ve ever been captivated by the beauty of Persian carpets you’ll find travelling around Iran like looking over the inventory of a hand knotted rug shop. Place names such as the biggies – Shiraz, Isfahan and Tabriz – stand out, but scattered across the map are so many other familiar names. A road trip will take you past places such as Hamadan, Ardabil, Marshad, Kerman and Na’in, all famous in their own right.

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Bringing the name to life can be revealing and surprising, Na’in being a case in point. A minor dot on the map between Yazd and Isfahan this world-recognised fine silk carpet hub is surprisingly unassuming for such a reputation. The main reason to make a stop in this quiet town of around 25,000 citizens is to admire one of the first mosques ever built in Iran, the roughly 1000-year-old Masjed-e Jameh (Friday Mosque).  This weathered old house of worship, still very much in use today is, unlike many others in Iran, characterised by its austere appearance, adorned by decorative stuccowork rather than colourful ceramic mosaics or frescos. Built to cope with the same trying climatic conditions as Yazd the mosque has winter and summer   accommodation, the latter underground offering significantly cooler temperatures in summer and warmer in winter.

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Beautifully austere stuccowork at the Masjed-e Jameh mosque. 

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The air conditioned sections of the mosque, with ventilation.  

Another attraction, in the old part of Na’in – well, even older than the 1000-year-old mosque – are the imposing ruins of the Sassanid-era Narin Citadel which is at least 2000 years old. There is some suggestion it may be include the remains of a Zoroastrian fire temple, many of which are scattered across the region.

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Laneways in the old(er) section of Na’in. 

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Sassanid-era Narin Citadel


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Big, bigger, biggest

The almost featureless stretch of landscape between Pasargadae and Yazd, hazy with desert heat and dust, seems an unlikely place to see what our guide said was the world’s oldest living thing – a 4000-year-old cypress pine. Standing proudly behind an unassuming stone wall the 25-metre high protected national natural monument, known as Sarv-e Abarkuh, or the Zoroastrian Sarv, has been around for many of Persia’s numerous preceding incarnations.

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Trees are a little scarce in the Yazd desert.  

Remembering my early journalism training where we were advised great caution in claiming anything as the “oldest”, “biggest”, or whatever other superlative, as someone would always come up with something older, bigger, etc, I did a little checking. I discovered that the tree had certainly made some of the world top 10 lists but there were other claims to the “biggest” title. However, Wikipedia did suggest it was “likely the second-oldest living thing in Asia”. Still pretty impressive.

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Asia’s oldest living thing, the 4000-year-old cypress pine known as Zoroastrian Sarv; sign proclaiming the tree’s credentials in Arabic script. 

Apparently the oldest tree title belongs to a giant bristlecone pine in the Inyo National Forest in the Californian White Mountains aptly named Methuselah. At 4841 years it is supposedly “the oldest known non-clonal organism on earth” and its location is kept a closely guarded secret.

Australia can claim trees of 2000 years with root systems 5000 years old, linking back to the Gondwana-era cool temperate rainforests, in the Springbrook National Park on the Queensland-New South Wales border and listed on the World Heritage register.


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Some like it hot

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Hot spot – mountains approaching Yazd. 

As you crank up the cooler this hot summer spare a thought for the early citizens of Yazd, in central Iran, who had to endure temperatures in the mid-50s C in pre-Air-conditioned discomfort.  Not only was Yazd stinking hot, being in the middle of the desert, water was very hard to come by. Luckily the early central Iranians were a resourceful lot adopting ingenious solutions to both problems, thus making some semblance of a comfortable life possible.

To deal with the water issue they adopted the innovative technology of the qanat, underground water channels, said to have originated in the area around 2,500 years ago.  The outward manifestation of these qanats is bricked domed structures, examples of which dot the Yadz landscape like brown clay igloos.

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Modern-day Qanat and bagdirs.

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Old bagdirs awaiting restoration in historic Yazd. 

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Inside a bagdir, looking up. 

And the solution to being a couple of thousand years away from AC development? Bagdirs, ingenious directional wind catchers, usually comprising four shafts, which cleverly guided outside air downwards in one shaft and upwards in another, with wind currents formed by the difference in inside and outside temperatures. The bagdirs were often built over cellars and underground water reservoirs with such a cooling effect that food could be kept “refrigerated” and water cooled. The technology remains in use today and numerous examples of this wonderful desert air conditioning, ancient and new, sprout like crazy chimneys from rooftops across the city.

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Narrow laneways and high walls provide shade and protection. 

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Life in the laneways – traditional baker making delicious bread. Taste tested!
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Everything old is new again – restoration work. 

Both badgirs and qanats are among the many tourists fascinations of Yazd, another of Iran’s World Heritage-listed sites, one of the oldest towns on earth and a key stop on the timeworn trading routes. Others include the old town of sun-dried mud bricks, a veritable maze of high walls and laneways, all part of the cunning plan to create shade and deflect dust storms to make desert life possible;   Zoroastrian sites reflecting Yadz’s pre-eminence as a leading centre of that religion; and the Amir Chakhmaq Hosseinieh complex, one of the largest such structures in Iran.  Celebrating the plucky town’s ascendancy over the hostile environment is the Yadz Water Museum while the Qajar-era Khan-e Lari, a fine example of a merchant’s house, now houses architectural students and cultural heritage offices.

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Historic Zoroastrian village in Yazd. 

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Doors and courtyard at Khan-e Lari merchant’s house. 
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Zoroastrian Fire Temple in Yazd said to have been burning since AD 470.


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Channeling victory

The Romans were pretty handy engineers particularly when it came to channeling water.  Ancient Rome was serviced with over 600 kilometres of aqueducts. And historic conduits and waterworks across the Roman Empire, such as Pont du Gard in the south of France, the aqueduct at Segovia in Spain, in places 60 metres high, and Bath in England, draw admiring visitors almost 2000 years later.  So it’s a little surprising to visit ancient Roman channeling that was far from a triumph for these ardent irrigators.

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Aqueducts and channels (plus graffiti signs) at Shushtar. 

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IMG_4843 edKolah Farangi Tower used to measure the Karoon River at Shushtar. 

In 259 AD the Sassanian King Shapur I conquered the emperor Valerian at the battle of Edessa, present-day Sanliurfa in southern Turkey, making him the first Roman emperor ever to be captured alive. The old adage says “to the victor go the spoils” and King Shapur did not waste the opportunity to put Valerian’s captured legionnaires to work in his barren domain on the Khuzestan Plain in southern Iran. The state-of-the-art system of channels, water mills and bridges they built under duress around what is now Shushtar was so cleverly engineered it’s still in use today.

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Impressive watermills complex at Shushtar. 

Maybe those Roman slaves would at least be happy to hear their handiwork has been recognised with World Heritage listing.  Unfortunately their captured leader was not rewarded for his men’s good work. Valerian was said to have been imprisoned by Shapur I at Salosel Castle, which looks across the irrigated plains from a hillside clifftop, and horrifically executed by being made to drink molten gold.

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Salosel Castle, the reputed prison of the emperor Valerian. 

The aquatic bounty delivered by the water mills and channels gives potent agricultural life to a parched landscape best known for its oil production. Crops turning the stark landscape green include sugar cane and watermelons, not harvests usually associated with deserts. Shapur I was not backwards in coming forwards about proclaiming his conquest commissioning impressive commemorative reliefs to be carved into the cliffs at nearby Bishapur, his capital.

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Shapur I boasts of his victory over Valerian in Bishapur rockface reliefs. 

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The regular source of Khuzetsan’s  wealth. 

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Lush cane fields amidst the desert. 


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Happy New Year – 明けましておめでとうございます – Akemashiteomedetōgozaimasu

My favourite shop in Tokyo is a tiny, idiosyncratic craft boutique in Azabu Juban, not far from the Australian Embassy. Over its 35 years it has presented local Tokyoites and visitors to that eccentric city with a charming and inventive array of handmade wares all celebrating the Japanese love affair with the colour combination of blue and white.

In Japan the refreshing blue and white pairing is found on a comprehensive array of fine art, craft and everyday household items from beautiful pottery to fabrics, ceramics and paper crafts. Its use dates back centuries reflecting the long interaction between Japan, China and Korea, despite present-day tensions.

The Blue and White Shop is the long-term labour of love of expat American Amy Katoh who has lived in Japan since the 1960s. The quaint boutique stocks traditional items such as tenugui hand towels, yukata kimonos, assorted rolls of fabrics, painted chopsticks, ceramic beads, and sundry other items, all in the quintessential blue and white, although the odd splash of other colours may be found.  A theme around the shop is the cherubic visage of Otafuku, the Japanese goddess of good luck.

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Saying goodbye to the 2014 Otafuku

One of Blue and White’s most popular items, especially at this time of the year, is their distinctive crafty calendar which each year carries a message and in which Otafuku makes her inevitable appearance. This year’s theme is genki – health, vitality, and energy.  Last year’s was mottainai – don’t waste stuff. We were reminded that some things are better the second time around “or at least as good” – including the calendar which it was suggested should be given new life in 2015 in yet another craft form. A Japanese friend, who like so many of her countrywomen is clever with her hands, has already put her hand up for my 2014 calendar to give a creative second life.

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Here’s to a genki 2015. 
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The Otafuku makes her appearance in February. 

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Mottainai – last year’s calendar will not go to waste.