Stage 14 – Iran: Deserts And Borders [1/2]
Although I’d been in Iran for about three weeks, it wasn’t until I struck north from the Persian Gulf, up onto the Iranian Plateau, that I entered the real Persian heartland with all its history and cultural attractions. I had visited many of the country’s great cities the previous winter, and on this visit my aim was to look instead at the places in between – in the great, empty deserts of Iran, and farthest reaches of the country along the borders of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Iraq. In these marginal areas one finds some of Iran’s many minorities; Sunni Persians, Turkmen and Kurds, who make up a significant proportion of the country’s population. It would be a tour of Iran’s empty and forgotten places.
On the 13th January 2009 I leave Bandar Abbas and head north, going from the balmy but arid Persian Gulf Coast and gently climbing into the ‘real’ Persia, that from the pages of Curzon and Byron, of dry-raked mountains where oranges, pistachios, pomegranates, grapes and walnuts have been grown for generations in neat fields irrigated by channels of crystal-clear desert water. It is here that the Persians live amongst their history; in the restored magnificence of the country’s mosques, bazaars and mausolea, or crumbling caravanserais and castles which litter the landscape, markers of an ancient overland trade route.
I arrive in the early evening in the city of Kerman, which seems to embody all of the delights of Iran, though still has something of the air of an outpost surrounded by ranges of mountains and vast deserts. It’s the last in a string of magnificent cities on the modern overland route from Europe to India. Kerman is a very fine example of a Persian city, centered around the atmospheric and time-worn bazaar which interconnects the social, commercial and cultural life of the city; with magnificently tiled mosques, ancient mausolea, bathhouses and rueful parks. Although it does not quite match the monuments of Esfahan or the refined air of Shiraz, it manages to perfectly juxtapose the modern with the ancient in that uniquely Iranian manner. Like all of Iran’s cities however, there is an ever-growing sprawl of bland, characterless suburbs of pale brick houses, glass shopfronts, neon signs and snarling traffic which one cannot reconcile with the elegant, graceful and timeless masterpieces of Persian antiquity.
I make a day trip out of Kerman into the surrounding countryside which is dusted by windblown snow and framed by bleak, white mountains. My first stop is Mahan, which hosts the shrine of fifteenth century wanderer of Central Asia, Sufi master and poet Shah Nureddin Nematollah Vali, which is topped with an exquisite turquoise-tiled dome. In the nearby town of Rayen I wander around the empty arg (citadel), an impressive brown adobe structure which has echoes of the once splendid arg in Bam. Out in the nearby countryside is another monument of classical Persian civilisation, the Qajar-era (nineteenth century) Shazdeh Garden. Set across a sloping plain, Shazdeh is the epitome of the Persian garden; a long, rectangular, tiered pool, lined its entire length by cypress and plane trees, and ending in a two-storey pleasure-palace. The garden is telling of Persian tastes; for greenery and water in a country which is often desert, of natural beauty and indulgent hedonism.
I leave Kerman early one freezing morning and begin my journey into the hinterland, crossing the snow-covered mountains which lie immediately to the east of the city, then dropping gently more than two thousand metres through villages such as Shafiabad, with its crumbling fortified mud-brick caravanserais, to the edge of the real desert.
The Dasht-e Lut, literally meaning the ‘plains of nothingness’ is the southern of Iran’s two large deserts. It records the world’s highest surface temperatures (70.7º C is the record) in summer, and much of it is abiotic: beyond the desert’s edge there is simply no life; no blade of grass, no insect, nothing. It could be another planet. The stark emptiness of the desert with its pure, silent simplicity serve to cleanse the mind and soul. Pinky-brown yardangs; outcrops of rock beautifully eroded by the wind, float over the grey-brown sandy plains like a flotilla of ships extending off into infinity, under a perfect cloudless sky of deep winter-blue. The road plunges ever east, mesmerisingly straight for dozens of kilometres at a time. There is absolutely no other traffic, and I begin to wonder if this road (which is not marked on maps) is actually completed, and if it goes anywhere at all. It’s not a thought which really troubles me however, as it is a pure pleasure to drive here.
After perhaps two hours of solitude on this perfect desert road, the landscape starts to change. Sand is replaced by barren plains and salt deposits hint at ephemeral watercourses; patches of sparse vegetation appear and the other-worldly desert becomes monotonous scrubland.
It’s in this scrubby wasteland that I spot a red pickup truck parked at the roadside, and four men standing around it. One is in army fatigues and the other three plain-clothed, one of whom walks to the roadside and waves for me to stop. I have no intention of doing so until the man pulls out a Kalashnikov and points it at me. I stand on the brakes and pull up near the other truck, where one of the other plain-clothed men approaches the window. This wild area is a prime drug-trafficking route from Afghanistan towards Europe, and there are warnings about run-ins with drug traffickers in the desert. I’m only slightly relieved to find out that these men are police (by law plain-clothed police are not permitted to stop motorists), but the man I speak to turns out to be friendly, and (perhaps worryingly) able to speak English. I’m allowed to pass with little fuss, but it’s not the most pleasant end to a wonderful drive.
I reach the Sistani town of Nehbandan in the late afternoon and, finding nowhere to eat, push on north. After dark I have another run-in with the police, this time at a conventional checkpoint. A small Mercedes lorry has been pulled over, and the driver is handcuffed. The police lead me over and point at some old gas cookers and refrigerators strapped to the back, which on close inspection are full of packages of heroin. The Iranian police universally see nothing wrong with wasting my time and after a long wait in the dark and cold, my car is carefully inspected. Cooking and kitchen apparatus are now of great interest to these people, and my gas cooker is given a very thorough going over. To their surprise the police find no narcotics in my truck and eventually allow me to leave, only to be stopped a few kilometres later by some of their colleagues. Interactions with the police are definitely my least favourite experience in Iran.
Late at night I reach the freezing desert town of Birjand, whose frozen streets I explore the following morning. The frozen air is crystal clear and beyond the city’s labyrinthine streets of traditional adobe houses lies a range of frozen mountains which contrast attractively with the ubiquitous browns of the surrounding desert. In the afternoon I push on to the sprawling city of Mashhad, where I am hosted by Mehdi, who lives in a very comfortable apartment with his mother. Mehdi is a thirty-something traveller and opens his house to all travellers passing through Mashhad, and it is here that I meet Maciej, a Polish photographer with whom I strike an immediate, and lasting friendship.
Maciej and I leave Mashhad together and strike out yet further east towards the city of Torbat-e Jam, and the borders with Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. The area has a slightly different feel from much of Iran; many of the people here are Sunni Persians and one sees bearded, turbaned men on the city streets where sheepskins are laid out for sale and destitute Afghan beggars sit forlornly, their lives ruined by war. In the smaller nearby town of Taybad, on the Afghan border lies the magnificent mausoleum of Sheikh Zeyn-ed Din Abubakr-e Taybadi, with a soaring tiled iwan (portal) towering over the sheikh’s grave, which lies under an straggly ilex tree in a paved courtyard reminiscent of Samarkand.
South of Taybad, in the small village of Karat I find one of my favourite structures in Iran, an ancient brick tomb tower; unique to this part of the world, minarets such as these are not connected to a mosque, but serve as monument to a long-interred local notable. The lower two-thirds of the tower are octagonal in section, covered in elaborate bands of brickwork picking out floral motifs and Kufic inscriptions, whilst the circular upper section of the tower has a pronounced lean, somehow adding to its charm. Maciej and I squeeze into the entrance and climb up the tower’s dark spiral staircase, to be rewarded at the top with a view over the surrounding countryside, set against soft, ochre mountains which fade away into Afghanistan. What an incredible landmark this must have been to the passing camel caravans as it appeared out of the desert wastes of Khorasan, on this arid stretch of the Silk Road.
The following day the two of us drive north-east to the Hari Rud River, which marks the border between Iran and Turkmenistan. We drive along the river, much to the suspicion of the local police, which is dammed and forms a striking turquoise lake against the powdery hills of Turkmenistan on the far side. Cotton fields line the road north to the border town of Sarakhs, where we turn west, passing the magnificent Silk Road caravanserai of Robat Sharif on our way back to Mashhad.
West of Mashhad, we spend a couple of days in the town of Bojnurd, before heading to the far north of Iran, to the beautiful province of Golestan, where the land rises into the dusty foothills of the Kopet Dag Mountains, which mark the border with Turkmenistan. North of the town of Gonbad-e Kavus we drive off the main road and join an unsurfaced road – a real rarity in Iran where all but the most minor of roads are perfectly sealed – into an area known as the Turkmensahra, or Turkmen Desert. We drive past isolated Turkmen farmsteads to the only rocky outcrop in the region, upon which sits the small shrine of the sixth century Syrian Nestorian Christian Khaled Nabi. The shrine is nothing special; a simple square building with a crude, conical metal dome, but it has perhaps the most evocative setting of any building I have seen, sat on a promontory above an endless sea of rolling velvet hills of buff, criss-crossed by sheep-trails from the ceaseless travails of generations of shepherds. It’s a true fairly-tale scene, like something out of a child’s picture-book of the Orient.
In the hills behind the mausoleum is a large Turkmen cemetery filled with an almost forest-like density of what appear at first to be stone phalli. Also common and more modern are smaller, almost cross-like cloverleaf grave markers, though it is the tall, phallic grave markers which are peculiar to this site. However, rather than being some paganistic pre-Islamic ornaments, both styles of grave markers are most likely highly stylised human forms, an Islamicised version of the ancient turkic balbal or man-stone which can be found across the steppes of Eurasia, with what seems to be the hood of the phallus actually representing a turbaned head, as can be seen in many more recent Islamic tomb designs. Nevertheless, the utterly remote location of this unique cemetery in a conservative Islamic country is the only reason it hasn’t been vandalised by zealots. I don’t believe I have ever met a single Iranian – zealous or (usually) otherwise who knows of its existence.
The following afternoon, as we drive north towards the town of Maraveh Tappeh, we stop at a funeral in a small village, where we are obviously spotted. A little further up the road, we are overtaken by a car containing two young men, who promptly hit their brakes, forcing us to stop. The two young men jump out, and to our initial bewilderment ask, or rather insist, on inviting us to their house for tea. We eventually accept, and follow them to the small village of Chenarly which nestles between the hills a few kilometres from town. We find ourselves in the house of our Turkmen hosts, where we are warmly welcomed by all the family and implored to stay for the night, an invitation we accept without hesitation.
Throughout history, the Turkmen were renowned as fearsome, rapacious barbarians who kidnapped or murdered anyone who entered their territory, yet my only experience to date of Turkmen people was of gentle warmth, or even timidity. The highly varied features of Turkmen do perhaps speak of a past of intertwined bloodlines; who knows what genes came into this lawless population over the centuries. Our host family is a testament to this; brothers Khodayberdy (Khody) and Abu Bakr who initially met us, are Turkish-looking whilst their cousin Binyamin and his brother have clearly Mongol features. After some hours of meeting family, eating and drinking, we move to another house across the village, and have a smoke whilst a fantastic thunderstorm rolls in. Rather a nice outcome, hostages to hospitality.
In the morning we say a fond farewell to out new-found friends and continue towards the Caspian, tracking the Turkmenistan border westwards, the land becoming increasingly flat and rather sterile looking, dotted by distant flocks of sheep watched by sole Turkmen shepherds. These marginal grasslands must once have been dotted by the felt ak oi (yurts) of Turkmen nomads, the only points of human artifact on this vast Central Asian landscape but for the occasional grave marker, though not a trace of them seems to remain. The Turkmen of Iran were in fact settled by Reza Shah in the twentieth century into modern, controllable, tax-paying, sedentary citizens.
We stay the night in the Caspian port town of Bandar-e Torkman, with our Turkmen host Ali. Ali’s mother, whom I estimate is in her late fifties, has memories of the nomadic way of life, but does not miss it; modern conveniences at least are naturally preferable when compared to the stark life out on the plains. In the course of the evening I remark to Ali how gentle and shy the Turkmen of today are in my experience, when compared to their forebears. He gestures towards his groin making a scissor-like cutting motion with his index and middle finger.
It never stops raining in Bandar-e Torkman, and we leave the Caspian coast, passing through Gorgan, crossing the mountains to Bastam and then heading west to the capital where we will meet Matjaz and Ana, with whom I travelled in Ladakh last year. We camp for the night out in the desert, but the weather is miserable; damp grey clouds roll overhead and the night is frigid. We leave the next morning for the long drive to Tehran. At some point during this long, soporific journey I reach a decision on a problem that has been troubling me for a couple of months now: I abandon any ideas of crossing the Persian Gulf and returning to Europe via Arabia. My plan now is to move east once again, back to my beloved Pakistan.
We reach a salubrious district of North Tehran that evening, where I have a joyful reunion with my old friends Matjaz and Ana in the apartment of one of their friends. Tomorrow we shall all head east to the far side of the country, into the deepest valleys of Kurdestan.