Active Travel, Cultural Travel, Iran, Kashan, UNESCO WHS

Salt Flats, Sand Dunes, Underground City, Fin Garden & Qom

Today was our last day in Iran.  Since our flight to Hong Kong, via Doha, was late in the evening, Friendly Iran, our tour operator, has thoughtfully  arranged a number of additional sights in Kashan , and near Kashan for us to explore.

Our tour guide Alex, and driver Albors, picked us up promptly at our traditional hotel at 9:30 am.

Court yard of our traditional hotel in Kashan

We drove northeast for approximately 30 minutes until we came to a check point to the entrance of the Maranjab Desert. After the check point, we drove on a gravel/ sand road into the desert for just over one hour. We saw a few oncoming trucks but otherwise, we were the only vehicle on the road. At the first stop, we walked to an area where we can see salt crystals mix with the sand.

Stopped on the road in the desert. Albors, the driver showed us his photo skills

We found a few areas where the salt was almost completely pure white crystals.

A photo trick by Albors, the driver

Then we drove to the “salt lake” area where the salt has formed hexagons patterns in the desert. The convection effect of the salt and sand forms these shapes, and they vary in size and shape depending on the season.

Hexagon shapes on the salt flats

Salt is actively being mined from this desert.  The good quality salt extract is processed for consumption, and the not so pure lower quality salt is for industrial use.

We continued our drive into the desert until we came to sand dunes. We were able to hike for 30 minutes into the dunes for views into the distance, to feel the vastness of desert.

Sand dunes in the desert

Difficult to capture the height and lines of the sand dunes

On our return drive out of the desert, we drove by a lookout point overlooking a large canyon.

Standing on top of the canyon

We also spotted a few camels grazing.  One of them got rather curious, poking her head into our open window when we stopped.

Camel poking it’s head through our car window

As we were approaching back into the city, Alex explained that Kashan is called an Oasis city because of the Qanat agricultural irrigation system that was developed here as early as 800 BC, and that the Kashan region is of one of the oldest human settlement in Iran. Qanats have sustained food and livelihood over millennia by providing reliable source of water to traditional farms in the most arid areas in the Middle East where agriculture and farming would be impossible otherwise.  These Qanat irrigation systems were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.

Alex’s diagram of the Qanat irrigation system

When we returned to Kashan,  we visited an “ab anbar”, an ancient reservoir or cistern of drinking water.  We started by seeing the dome shape part of the ab anbar above ground and the wind catcher that provides ventilation for the water tank.

Dome covering the ab anbar; wind catcher tower to the left

Then we went down many steps below ground to have a look inside the tank, built below ground to withstand the high pressure water that exert on the tank. The construction material used for ab anbars were a special mortar called sarooj, made from sand, clay, egg whites, goat hair and ash in specific proportion.  This mixture was thought to be completely water impenetrable.  The walls of the storage was 2 meters thick.

Inside the ab anbar

From  the ab anbar, we walked a short distance to the Nooshabad Underground city, a 1,500 year-old, 3 story subterranean city where ancient Persians took refuge in times of war and danger. Despite its impressive size and function, the knowledge about the ancient buried shelters were only passed on verbally from one generation to another and was not documented. When an earthquake struck Kushan 200 years ago, this city was abandoned and became unknown until about just twelve years ago, when a resident stumbled upon a tunnel while digging a sewage ditch in his home.

Stairs leading to the entrance to the underground city

The underground network comprised of three stories of tunnels, chambers, air ducts, staircases, canals, and booby traps. It’s considered a marvel of ancient architecture and engineering. Construction dates back to the Sassanian empire, 224 to 651 AD.  Inhabitants would dig underground chambers as hideout spots for women, children, and the elderly in the event of an attack by foreign invaders.

Narrow corridors in the underground city

After the darkness of the underground city, we headed over Fin Garden, a UNESCO World Heritage site, 10 kilometers southwest of Kashan.

Fountains of Fin Garden, without the use of electricity

Designed for Shah Abbas I in the 16th century, this garden with its symmetrical proportions, old cypress trees, spring-fed pools and fountains is renowned as being the very epitome of the Persian garden and its evocation of heaven.

Symmetrical perfection of Fin Garden, and the hydralic wonders of the pools and fountains

The building had beautiful architecture to admire, and we were intrigued by the fact that the fountains and pools were designed and built with no electric pumps but with advanced hydraulic engineering of its time in connecting vessels using gravity and pressure of reduced diameter pipes.

Fin Garden building full of history

We had enjoyed the Eram Garden in Shiraz, also an UNESCO Persian Garden.  But we thought Fin Garden in Kashan is better kept and prettier.

Photo with Alex, our guide, a former civil engineer. Perfect guide to explain the technical marvel of that period

After the calm, peaceful walk in the garden, it was time to bid farewell to our guide Alex, and continue our journey towards Tehran with the driver Albors for our evening flight out of Tehran.  As part of this journey, we were able to visit Qom, one of the holiest cities in Iran and Middle East. Qom is the main city for religious studies in Iran and has the largest Theology school in Iran with many senior ranking clerics of Shia Islam living here.

One of the three court yards of the Fatima Masumeh Shrine complex

The most famous attraction in Qom is the Fatima Masumeh Shrine, which is a highly respected Shrine.  Fatima Msumeh was the sister of the eighth Imam Reza and the daughter of the seventh Iman Musa al-Kadhim.  Fatima Masumeh is a saint because of her own holiness and wisdom. She is said to have been learned in various Islamic sciences and the teachings of Muhammad, and to have transmitted many hadiths (records) from her family members.

As non-Muslims, we were allowed entry to the enormous shrine complex, but not allowed entry inside the holy shrine unless accompanied by a guide.

The dome above the Shrine, and minarets, are all in cast in gold

As with all shrine, male and female have completely separate entrance, but this one, there was a totally separate iwan for the female.  Our guide, provided by the Shrine office, was female, so only Susana was able to enter the Shrine.

Susana (in white/pink chador), volunteer guide in black chador, entering the Shrine.

Inside the shrine, it was very crowded with women worshipers.  The Shrine was gold, ornate and surrounded by devotees.  Yet in spite of the crowd, there was a sense of calm and peace.  No words can really describe its beauty and spiritual vibes.   I felt so privileged to be able to witness such pure Islamic passion.

After our stop at Qom, it was another one hour drive to the Tehran airport.  Our driver Albors was so thoughtful to remember that our schedule was tight that we only had quick snacks throughout the day, but no proper lunch.  He drove us to a Falafel sandwich shop in Qom where we picked up some Falafel sandwiches to eat in his car.  Then Albors, in his limited English, entertained us with funny tourist stories for the next hour until he delivered us safely to the Tehran airport.

We flew Qatar Airways to Hong Kong, with a short layover in Doha airport in Qatar. The Doha airport is one of the nicest in the world, and we enjoyed it on our second visit there.


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