South Myanmar in Photos

This post is part of series documenting travel in Myanmar, Cuba and Iran: Introduction.

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Moulmein.
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June 2015

Most travelers head north from Yangon, Bagan and Inle-lake especially. But south-east of the country offers fascinating sights to see as well. Here are couple photos from Moulmein and Hpa-An.

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Moulmein. Worlds largest reclining Buddha at Mudon.
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Moulmein.
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Moulmein.
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Hpa-An.
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Hpa-An.
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Hpa-An.
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Hpa-An.
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Hpa-An.
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Amazing cloud of bats going for eat, every sunset.

Persian Bazaars And Caravanserais

This post is part of series documenting travel in Myanmar, Cuba and Iran: Introduction.

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Mud city and citadel of Arg-e Bam, South Iran. Bam was starting point for trade routes heading eastwards to Pakistan and India. Travelers through ages have stopped and awed its massive walls and buildings. Silk Road traveler Marco Polo being one of them.

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Kalouts, at the edge of Dasht-e Lut desert, South East of Iran.
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September 2015 & January 2016

Imagine Kalouts: constant pleasant wind, rock formations continuing to horizon, heat emitting from ground, further away an oasis with palm trees and vegetation. Wind always blows from the same direction, reason of the unique rock formations. Besides the gentle whistle, an unbroken silence. Open the map, turn the satellite on, zoom out, to see the location yourself.

Caravanserai can be described in English as a road side inn. Its a fortified yard where caravans could rest, instead of risking overnight out in the desert – not always the safest of places during uncertain times. It was often build in a place where it could serve as a water storage as well, a vital necessity in hot dry desert regions that caravans had to cross.

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Tehran bazaar.

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Spices in Esfahan bazaar.

Caravans did long distance travels in North Africa, Middle East and India, so network of caravanserais were needed in regular distances along the routes. Such building project would have not been very thorough, unless regional rulers helped making it possible. Obvious benefit being increase of taxable commerce, as well as exchange of information and people.

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Tehran.

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Shiraz.

In urban areas logical place for a caravanserai was as part of bazaar, where commerce could be made, news shared, and people meet. Even when its old purpose has disappeared, many Iranian bazaars still feature a caravanserai.

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Kermanshah.

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Qasvin.

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Kerman.

Bazaars are still very much in use and interesting places for people watch. Abundance and variety of the goods on sale is also interesting. Persian carpets, spices, jewels, hand crafts are the traditional items visitor can satisfy his/her shopping binge. But everything else too, varying from Chinese electronics to Indian clothes to Turkish tools to pretty much anything imaginable.

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Tehran.

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Tehran.

Last photos bellow are from Kashan, one of personal favourites in Iran. Bazaar is large, lively and authentic, with genuinely friendly Iranians both as sellers and customers. City is not as popular tourist destination as Esfahan, Yazd and Shiraz, undeservedly so!

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Kashan bazaar.
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Rooftop of Kashan bazaar.

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Agha Bozorg mosque, Kashan.

Persian Bazaars: Tabriz

This post is part of series documenting travel in Myanmar, Cuba and Iran: Introduction.

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September 2015 & January 2016

Standing in Tabriz bazaar feels like being in the halls of large cathedral. And at the same, in a maze zigzagging to surprise directions with new corridors and halls. At parts, crowded with people and other, desolated with just few passers by. Instead of taking a map, I prefer to get lost. Watching, wandering until exit on some random point and can relocate myself again.

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Bazaar of Tabriz is the largest in the world today, and dates back to the 13th century. The complex covers 27 hectares with over 5.5 kilometres of covered bazaars. Its still very much in its original form, if there can be an original form for something that lives day by day. Preservation efforts started back in the 1970’s. In 2010 it was inscribed as a world heritage site by UNESCO. Today its a must-see spot for anyone visiting the city.

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Waterpipe’s, or as Iranians call it, ghelyan, are bubbling in choir in a small tea house. Am just having a cup of tea and watching other visitors enjoying their tobacco and talking. Room is on the second floor, with a tiny window down to one of alleys. There daylight pours in from the ventilation holes in the ceiling, and dust raised by the constant traffic is beamed through. All scenes not changed much for generations, and among many other impressions, part of the magic of bazaar.

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All the photos in this post have been taken in Tabriz. Here’s second post about bazaars and caravanserais of Iran, in general.

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George Orwell: Flory’s Kyauktada or Blair’s Katha

This post is part of series documenting travel in Myanmar, Cuba and Iran: Introduction.

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Irrawaddy, Myanmar’s main waterway

June 2015. Its midnight, rain drops are drumming metal roof of my guesthouse. Arrived finally to Katha after full day of traveling in train, and lastly hour ride in darkness from train station at Naba. Road was mostly good and tuktuk boy let his machine fly.

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George Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days was my favourites while living in neighbouring Thailand. Orwell, or Eric Arthur Blar as his real name was, was stationed in British Burma after WW1. He served Indian Imperial Police in several locations, and became deeply disillusioned about colonial system he was part of. Contemporary anecdotes of Orwell describe him a loner and, rather than spending time with British empire builders called pukka sahib‘s, he stays with Burmese locals or reading books. In the novel, similar character called John Flory working for a timber logging firm and living a lonely life in a remote outpost. It’s hard to avoid feeling that what Orwell wrote about Mr. Flory in Kyauktada, was very much his own experience as Mr. Blair in Katha.

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Search for Orwell’s house. Local teacher was well informed about Eric Arthur Blair, and his former home by the same street her school was.

Orwell returned to England 1927 and Burmese Days was published in 1934. Later ofcourse The Animal Farm and 1984 would bring him world wide fame, but his trademark Orwellian style was already very much present in the first novel. Today Burmese Days is popular reading among travelers in South East Asia, like The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway in Cuba and Caribbean.

Burmese Days takes place in remote Burmese village of Kyauktada. Orwells real life reference to Kyauktada was village of Katha (today’s road over 300km north of Mandalay). Having read everything I could find my hands on about Orwell’s time in Burma, didn’t think twice when opportunity to see the place!

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House of Eric Arthur Blair at the time of visit. It belongs to Burmese government, and a policeman is still living it.
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June 2015. In the novel, John Flory wakes at night by the dogs howling outside. When I came, could also see the dogs and remembered the part in book. Great grand children of what Flory was cursing perhaps!? Novel is obviously a fiction, but am excited of being finally here so fact and fiction are starting to mix. It’s well beyond midnight. I wont be taking a rifle and go after the dogs like Flory did. Nowadays we have something better: ear plugs.

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Riverboat’s could be used from Mandalay-Katha-Bhamo and back, but not all the way to Myitkyina due to military restrictions.

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Katha-Bhamo riverboat views.
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Snacks and food on offer for passengers.

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@ Bhamo.
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Cuban Reflections

This post is part of series documenting travel in Myanmar, Cuba and Iran: Introduction.

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March 2016

Here are twenty photos and some reflections from the trip to Cuba. Because its tropical flora and fauna, couldn’t help comparing the country to South East Asia that has become familiar in past years.

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Malecon, Havana.

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Havana.

What can I write about Cubans? They are music lovers and party people more than anything. Salsa is in their DNA. So are their love for fat cigars and rum. The liquor is even sold in small tetra packs. I spotted often guys sipping innocent looking small boxes and wondered whats the sudden juice or soda passion for grown up men. But no it is Ron Planchao, 40% alcohol. That explained! People are not proud but self confident. Locals often greet foreigners and welcoming them for happy holidays.

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Havana.

From the trio of countries that I’ve been documenting, Cuba is by far most touristy. Ocean cruisers bring hundreds at a time, and so does the busy Havana airport. When hearing the news that Cuba is opening to international community and blockades are history, many wont realise that in tourism industry that happen already 20 years ago. After fall of Soviet Union, Cuba lost not just an ally, but main customer for its agricultural products. From then on, tourists from Canada and Europe brought desperately needed foreign currency. Venezuela provided cheap oil that prevented economic wheels from stalling completely.

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Havana.
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The island is flat, Cuba’s highest peak does not reach 2000m. Scenes from bus: Sugar cane fields and rice paddies. Small sloping hills, palm trees and more fields and greenery.

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Vienales in west of island has landscape that remind scenes from South East Asia.

Farm animals are everywhere. It’s nice to see cowboy slowly riding to the fields in the mellow evening light, to return livestock back after grassing the day out. Condors gliding lazily with air currents and screening the world underneath. Another common bird that can be seen in shores is the pelican. Edit: related to farm animals, here’s link to a discussion on a web forum about Cuban “pork economy”, and some discussion as well as controversies related to situation in the country and its past.

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Trinidad.

Ride paddies are not worked as meticulously as in Asia, where rice has always been backbone of feeding populations. Burmese or Thai farmer could be shocked to see how temporary the mud walls that form the pools are. They seem like pulled up quickly with tractor, not carved to the soil in shape that farmer passes on to his son.

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Trinidad.

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Havana.

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Cienfuegos.

Streets are in pretty good condition, although street lights at night are dim. Lack of light pollution means bright night skies even in city centers. Traffic culture more expectable than in Asia, car drivers and pedestrians respecting each other.

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Santiago.

Shops and markets lack the endless variety and full shelf’s like in more prosperous countries. There were some queues occasionally, but in general shops always have least one brand of product’s on offer, and shelf’s were never completely empty.

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Trinidad, locomotive drivers.

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Camaguey.
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Weather in March has been really a dream. Constant winds, especially in Havana and northern side of island are refreshing. In south side, and especially Santiago, air was more stale and walking around in mid day not as nice.

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Camaguey.

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Santiago.
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Santiago.
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Viazul is Cuban hard currency bus company. Many tourists are using their busses while traveling in Cuba. Drivers are pretty well motivated, but are making bit extra on their own. Busses always have front seats that passengers cannot use. Those are for people that are picked up from hitching by the road side, and pay directly to drivers.

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In a bus. Co-driver relaxing, texting and chatting with the driver.

They are funny blokes to watch, wheeling and dealing their own along the way. When they feel like a juice, for instance, they stop by the shop, all passengers watching and waiting. Or when the other one knows a good basket shop on the way. The duo again disappear to a road side shop for a minute, and return smiling with nice new baskets in their hands. Chinese made busses are in ok condition, and schedule holds pretty well. That ensures no big protest arise when another surprise stop happens. Things run, but bit differently in Cuba.

Mandalay and Shan Minority Region of Myanmar

This post is part of series documenting travel in Myanmar, Cuba and Iran: Introduction.

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Mandalay and Shan minority region: Land, and people from many ethnic groups are beautiful. Although world changes fast, here too, it was still possible to find places little affected by modern times.

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April 2013 & June 2015

Woke up in bus around 6am while approaching Mandalay, landscape outside looked drier than past days in Yangon. Highway bus station is well outside the city, even beyond airport. I was only tourist on bus, conveniently, maybe not coincidentally, there was older gentleman with a signboard offering scooter rides to center. Still sleep in my eyes walking outside the bus, took his offer, and about 40 mins later checked in to my room in downtown.

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U Bien Bridge, Mandalay.
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Before arriving, I associated the name Mandalay to a romantic gone world. World from sepia coloured photographs, noblemen posing with their hunting trophies. Kipling’s world connected with ocean steamers and telegrams, not emails and budget airlines. Mandalay suffered badly during WW2. Wooden imperial city in the center was completely destroyed. But city still has interesting sights worth visiting: Mandalay Hill, Mahamuni Paya Temple, U Bien Bridge being among them. City is second largest in Myanmar, street life offers plenty to see.

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Few locals understand English at all, older generations being better speakers than younger. Reason is that after military coup of 1962, English education was stopped in Myanmar. Country never joined the Commonwealth either, like other dominions of former British Empire. Myanmar has its own timezone… Burmese like do things their own way. @ Mandalay

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I tried to continue to Hsipaw this morning by train. State controlled railways are notoriously badly managed. Wake up at 3am, walk to station for 4am train. Waited until 9am for nothing, then had enough and hitched a truck to Pyin Oo Lwin which is about 1/3 of the way between Mandalay to Hsipaw. Hilly views were brown and barren.

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Friendly smiles in Shan state.
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Pyin Oo Lwin used to be hill station of British Burma, and it was formerly known as Maymyo. Many colonial-era buildings are still standing. Besides its colonial heritage, town has waterfalls to explore and botanical garden. George Orwell served in Mandalay and Maymyo as policemen in 1920’s. @ Pyin Oo Lwin

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Long railway bridge over a deep valley.

Yesterdays train was late “only” 3-4 hours. After checking tickets and done their duties, conductors promptly started drinking for the rest of the way. Kind of telling what is the state of government controlled company. Didn’t even know that its physically possible for heavy train to jump and tilt so much without falling! But views were great and am glad I chose the train not easier bus. Burmese life in the stations and in train was worth many pictures. Train arrived to Hsipaw on sunset, had simple dinner and went bed early. Town is little bigger than in Pyin was. @ Hsipaw

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Morning walk to hot spring outside the town. Winds were cool, farmers with their water buffaloes working on rice paddies, scene not much changed over the centuries.
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Visit to “Shan Palace” is still worth mentioning. Like other Burmese minorities in British colonial Burma, Shan’s had semi-autonomous status. After independence (1947), and especially after military coup (1962), ethnic tensions escalated dramatically when largest group of Bamar’s took the reigns of the state.

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Compared to common perception of “royals”, Shan’s royals were more like feudal lords. Each fief had his area ranging from biggest 12,400 (Kengtung) to miniscule 14 square miles (Namtok).

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Before coup of -62, Shan’s royals were living in Hsipaw. Nowadays their original palace does not exist anymore, it was burned down by the military. “Palace” that remains today is British colonial-era mansion built in 1920’s. Current owners are relatives of former royals, and are already well in their sixties. Much of their life has been a struggle with the whims of military leaders. During my visit, one wing of the decaying mansion was open for travelers. Sympathetic owners had fascinating story to tell about the family and Shan history. The place has old photographs and other memorabilia from long gone era… @ Hsipaw

History: Esfahan and Yazd

This post is part of series documenting travel in Myanmar, Cuba and Iran: Introduction.

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Lotfollah Mosque, Esfahan

Esfahan

August 2015. Esfahan feels nice relief after crowded hot Tehran. Old bridges over the river Zayandehrud are charming, wish there was any water though. Cool evening winds after exhausting day are blowing over Naghsh-e Jahan Square, great example of Iranian and Islamic architecture. Families are outing, kids playing and adults talking, relaxing.

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Ceiling of Lotfollah Mosque. Mosque was used by the court that had secret access to it from Ali Qapu Palace across the square.

Square was center of imperial capital for public appearances and polo matches. Royal palace and court, important mosques and bazaar also surrounding it. Wikipedia: [city] regained its important position during the Safavid period (1501–1736). The city’s golden age began in 1598 when the Safavid ruler Shah Abbas I (reigned 1588–1629) made it his capital and rebuilt it into one of the largest and most beautiful cities of the 17th century.

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Music room of palace, walls made for acoustics

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Esfahan bazaar

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Persian spices in Esfahan bazaar

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Singing at Khaju Bridge.
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Yazd

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Ancient Yazd, town at edge of Dasht-e Kavir desert. Architecture of Yazd old town is a maze of mud houses and curvy corridors. From its outer appearance, Jame Mosque is perhaps most beautiful mosque I’ve seen. Minarets are higher than ones in Esfahan. One reason is that they were used as beacons in old times. Where landscape didn’t permit this function, minarets didn’t need to be so high.

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Jame Mosque, or Friday Mosque of Yazd. Every Iranian city has its Jame, the main mosque.

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Wind towers, an ancient aircon system, are pronounced feature of Yazd skyline.

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Different door knockers for men and women. From the sound, it was possible to tell who was at the door, and decide who could go open it.

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Day trip to Chak Chak, outside Yazd center. Road winding through arid deserts, surrounded by mountains further away. No traffic, heat is the norm, emitting from ground so its not possible to see outer reach of horizon. Eyes of imagination see caravans slowly progressing these infinite plains. Everybody in car are silent, looking mesmerised into distance.

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Chak Chak, drip drip. Name comes from slowly dripping fountain inside the cave temple, at the edge of mountain. This is Zoroastrian shrine, one of holiest sites of the religion. Its origins are in troublesome times when Islam had started to spread to Persia, 640AD. Zoroastrians not being Muslims had to flee these remote refuges, at the times of persecutions.

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Chak Chak
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Zoroastrian fire temple in Yazd downtown.
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In many ways, Yazd old center reminds me Jaisalmer in Rajastan, other side of deserts that span over the lands of Iran, Pakistan and India. Here’s a link to a trip there few years ago.