Sleepy Shahdad is the largest town in the Takhab area, a group of about 30 oasis villages wedged between the Payeh Mountains to the south and the vast emptiness of the Dasht-e Lut to the north. Shahdad is fiercely hot in summer, but its oranges (harvested in October) are reputedly the best in Iran.
About 75 minutes drive northeast of Kerman, Shahdad is mainly of interest as a gateway to the desert. It's sights are limited to the Safavid-era lmamzadeh-ye Mohammed Ebn-e Zeid mausoleum and, to the east of town, two prehistoric archaeological sites: the Tappeh-ye Kohne, the archaeological remains of a village settled about 5000 years ago; and 1km further the Shahrak-e Kotu-luha (City of the Little People) - the name refers to a local Lilliputian legend but its origin is unknown. There is not much to see.
Shafi Abad, an oasis village a few kilometres north of Shahdad, boasts a Seljuk-era caravanserai where it's possible to climb above the grand gatehouse and the northwest tower, and check out the lodgings along the northern wall where rooms are linked by an unusual arched corridor.
Leaving the Takhab behind, the road to Birjand heads north into the Kaluts, a 145km-long and 80km-wide stretch of desert dominated by long lines of five- to ten-storey high yardangs ('sand castles') that have been sculpted over millennia by a unidirectional wind (though locals will give you all sorts of alternative explanations). Whichever one you believe, the reality is spectacular, especially at dawn and sunset when light and shadows paint a shimmering canvas of gold and brown.
There are no official lodgings in Shahdad, but a desert camp at the edge of the Kaluts (which has a lot of lights and paved areas) and real desert camping (subject to the security situation) are both sold as the 'million-star hotel' for the sparkling night skies; speak to a guide in Kerman. Note that midday temperatures can rise to an almost unimaginable 65°C in summer (Gandom Beriyan, 40km north, has the world's highest recorded surface temperature - over 70°C).
There is no public transport to the Kaluts. Semiregular minibuses and savaris travel between Shahdad and Imam Khomeini St just south of Shohada Sq in Kerman, from where a taxi into Kaluts can be sorted. Take your passport as there is a checkpoint in Shahdad.