Stage 18 – Afghanistan & Iran: Khorasan To The Caspian Sea
This stage of the journey – passing through a corner of Afghanistan then heading across the plains of Khorasan to the Iranian capital and on to the Caspian Sea and the frontier of the Former USSR – would mark the last in the conservative societies of southern and western Asia in which I had been for more than two years.
It’s the 26th December 2009 and Duncan and I have just left the end-of-the-world town of Serhetabat at the southern tip of Turkmenistan, and entered Afghanistan once again. Entering the country is relatively simple despite my lack of a Route Permit, and we soon are in the muddy border town of Torghundi, which looks more like a sprawling village. The town is full of lorries making the transit to Turkmenistan and feels immediately more worldly and alive than any of Turkmenistan’s curiously comatose settlements. It’s late afternoon when we arrive and we decide to stay for the night to avoid driving the road to Herat in the dark, as it passes through areas with a Taliban presence.
As always we head to a chaikhana (teahouse) to stay for the night, but the local police soon find us and forbid us from staying there. I explain to them that we do not wish to pay for an expensive hotel (if one exists) and so we are invited to stay the night at the police station. Thus begins an eventful evening in the company of the police chief, a jolly, wiry Turkmen, and a number of young officers who are interested to meet us. We are fed a good meal which is supplemented by a bottle of illegal Turkmen vodka, though perhaps the most interesting part of the evening comes when the police chief pulls a live kestrel out from a cupboard, and allows it to hop and flap around in the room we are sitting in. Later, well after dark, some of the young officers enter the room, very heavily armed with chains of bullets thrown over their shoulders and invite us to join them on a night raid to ‘shoot Talibans’. Serious or otherwise, I imagine the police chief would not be best pleased if we were to join, and so we decline.
In the morning, just as we are ready to say goodbye to our hosts, the police chief becomes rather worried for our safety on the road to Herat. As there is only one road, there is no alternative and so we are given an escort, or rather a cavalcade of seven Police pick-ups filled with armed officers for the first leg of the journey. Not long after we are stopped by the US Army coming the other way down the road (who have an escort of only three pick-ups) and my pick-up is searched by one of their local officers on suspicion of being used to transport drugs – rather a curious accusation seeing whose company we are in. Pretty soon however we are moving once again, until we reach a small village. All the Police stop here before jumping out and running off amongst the mud houses with guns drawn. Our hosts from last night say just one word to us: “Go”.
The road passes through a few villages in which we don’t stop, then crosses the shallow Robat-e Mirza pass in the Paropamisadae mountains whereupon the scenery changes subtly; gone are the sparse grasslands of Turkestan, replaced instead by a backdrop of long ranges of distant black mountains, beyond which the stony plains of Khorasan extend to the centre of Iran.
The similarity to Iran becomes even stronger once we arrive in Herat, whose long streets of fine bazaars and general air of culture and history make it far more like the great cities of Iran than anywhere I have come across so far in Afghanistan. The black, Persian chador is far more prevalant on the streets than the burqa seen elsewhere; the faces have softer, Aryan features and Persian replaces Pashto or Uzbek as the predominant language. Herat is indeed so much like Iran that I find myself on several occasions forgetting momentarily that I am still in Afghanistan; the city feels just like Iran, just with a rugged, chaotic touch.
Herat features in classical history as the capital of the Achaemenid satrapy of Aria, and became a flourishing centre of culture and the arts in the twelfth century, causing Rumi to describe it as the ‘Pearl of Khorasan’. The city became the capital of the Timurid Empire in the fifteenth century following the death of Tamerlane, and much of the city’s grandeur dates this period. Though far from untouched by the ravages of recent history, Herat retains enough of its central streets and ancient architecture to be an impressive and endearing, living city; a far cry from the air of fallen grandeur which permeates Turkestan.
Duncan and I are hosted by Khalil, who works as an interpreter for the US Army in the city. He lives with his family in a modest though comfortable house which he has built himself, in a very rustic part of town which consists of linked mud-brick houses accessed via narrow and irregular alleys down which the truck can barely squeeze. Much of the centre of Herat is given over to bazaars; long streets of time-worn shop-fronts and narrow alleyways which occasionally give way to small caravanserais, some of which are beautifully restored with tall vaulted ceilings and porticoed shops. The smell of the spice bazaars immediately transports the senses to Iran and the Middle East; the pungent blend of spices, herbs and dried fruits which must have scented the trade routes of Eurasia for centuries.
Khalil takes us one evening to the old Citadel which is undergoing restoration; an impressive towered fortress which sits amongst the melee of a busy fruit market. From the ramparts of the citadel one has a panorama over the entire city, set against low, eroded mountains which give it an aspect much like many of Iran’s great cities. Amongst the warren-like lanes of mud-brick homes and shops, the glorious relics of Herat’s heyday as capital of an empire in which the decorative arts flourished, stick out with tall minarets and blue domes.
Herat’s Friday Mosque is the city’s most complete and restored highlight; a Timurid masterpiece covered in lavish faïence which has been very carefully restored and is still clearly in active use. To the north is the Mosallah Complex which would have been the city’s greatest architectural edifice; a medressa (religious school) built by Gowharshad Begum, the daughter-in-law of Tamerlane who made Herat the imperial capital. The medressa complex was levelled by the British in the nineteenth century for fears of the Russians using it as a forward-base in an attack on India, and only five of the eight towering minarets remain, in a state of precarious decrepitude. In a adjacent park which is closed to the public, Gowharshad’s own elegant mausoleum sits forlornly; the stunningly intricate fluted dome looking rather bald after having lost almost all its turquoise tiles.
Another highlight, and one which Byron was particularly taken with, is the Sufi shrine to Khwaja Abd’allah Ansari, the pir (saint) of Herat, at Gazar Gah. Lying on a rise to the north-west of the city, the Timurid shrine has an elegant main portal with dazzling geometric mosaics of Arabic script, and a courtyard filled with the graves of those who have been buried near the pir, in the Islamic tradition. As I’m walking around the cemetery, a group of Kuchi nomads from neighbouring Badghis Province enter; three women with rough faces in heavy black chadors and wearing heavy silver jewellery make an offering to the pir, muttering prayers, whilst the men kneel and prostrate themselves towards the man’s tomb.
On my final evening in Afghanistan, I am invited, along with Duncan to have a discussion with a local mullah, though I excuse myself from the meeting as I am not in the mood for a heavy religious discussion. Instead, I take a taxi a few kilometres south of town on the old road to Kandahar, to the Hari river; that which we shall follow tomorrow to the Iranian border, where it heads north, eventually dissipating into the Tejen Oasis south of Merv. Here the Pol-e Malan, a beautifully restored Safavid bridge, crosses the wide, shallow river in twenty-two graceful arches, with water cascading gently over a wide slipway. It’s a popular place for Heratis to come and spend time, and it’s not long before a circle of young men, one of whom is in police uniform, invite me to join them. We speak for a while and share some very pleasant Afghan hashish, and I’m soon feeling extremely mellow. By the Western calendar, it’s New Year’s Day, but the temperature is mild and the sky is slowly dimming with vivid lances of pink and white as the sun dips beyond the horizon. I filter out the sound of conversation and traffic, and hear just the gentle roar of the river which together with the atmospherics is really quite blissful.
I’ve completed my dream of crossing Afghanistan, and it has far exceeded my already high expectations. The people I have met, and the places I have seen have had a magical, timeless quality about them. Afghanistan is utterly fascinating; at once war-ravaged and untouched, tense but welcoming, wild yet sensuously beautiful, backward yet steeped with the ruins of multiple empires which have come to pass. I’m thankful that I’ve not encountered any trouble in the country, but even more glad that I made the decision to come. It would certainly have been quite crushing to have left the region without having visited at least part of the country. I finally have a sense of closure and completion, though despite being more than two-and-a-half years into my journey I still have no wish whatsoever to return to Western Europe. The time has now come to begin a journey to another side of Eurasia; that of the former USSR.
As darkness falls, I rouse myself and begin the six kilometre walk back to Khalil’s house. I enjoy the heightened anonymity of the darkness and deeply enjoy the soliatry walk. Reaching Khalil’s house, I enter the room looking rather distant, and soon excuse myself to go and sleep.
The following morning is spent attending to some last-minute errands; importantly, my customs document has just arrived at the TNT office, meaning that I can enter Iran with my truck. We say our goodbyes to Khalil and his family, with whom we have stayed for a week in the atmospheric back-streets of this most magnificent city in Afghanistan. We head out west, tracking the Hari river towards the Iranian border crossing at Islam Qala. On the way, we call the guys in Mazar-e Sharif and learn that tragically, Ramesh has died. It seems so stupid that a young man who grew up in a war-torn country, who was well educated and due to soon be married, has died in what was a relatively minor car accident, most likely for not having worn a seat belt. It inclines the two of us to use ours more often.
We reach the Iranian border at Islam Qala and proceed to wait while the petulant Iranian officials deliberately delay us. While hordes of Afghans with vast bags full with goods move through with relative ease, we are eventually taken into an office and explained that it is necessary to be fingerprinted, due to being British. The customs officers are little better and I only just manage to get the truck through customs before the border shuts for the night. Despite the nasty introduction it is nevertheless nice to be back on Iran’s perfectly smooth and secure roads, and I drive through the night across the northern fringes of the Dasht-e Kavir on Highway 44, bypassing Mashhad, Nishapur and Sabzevar to arrive in the pleasant desert town of Shahrud.
We are hosted in Shahrud by Amir and his very welcoming family, who feed us wonderful meals of traditional Iranian dishes. Despite the feeling of having advanced several decades in time, there is a clear cultural continuity with Herat, and it’s interesting to see that rich Persian culture brought forward into modernity with bazaars of modern shops, well maintained mosques and gardens, and tidy small towns which are at once traditional and modern. Duncan moves on before me, to see some of the country’s great cities, while I stay a few days relaxing with Amir before moving west towards the capital.
Highway 44 continues west across the desert, through Damghan and Semnan towards the Alborz mountains and the capital. The traffic becomes thicker as Tehran sucks one in, like a massive sprawling organism of a city, feeding on the foul mass of traffic which hurtles headlong with reckless abandon towards the monster motor-city, passing through foul satellite towns such as Pakdasht; once quiet villages now witness to the hideous traffic which snarls endlessly around Tehran. Chimneys belch out smoke, casting a sickly brown light from the low sun. Cars, bikes and trucks hurtle past undertaking, overtaking, weaving through, and one has no choice but to join the locals in their reckless, lawless aggression; tailgating, squeezing in, playing chicken with two cars to squeeze through a narrow gap between trucks, like a charge of wild steeds galloping home, out of control. Entering the throes of the capital proper, one slots onto the system of expressways; speeding masses of cars flowing under bridges and round twisted spaghetti junctions. One has moments only to check a sign, before being swept past the turn, entering kilometres of unknown road twisting round and over the endless suburbs.
More than ever, Tehran seems bland, ugly and singularly charmless; I’m on a come-down after the weeks of adventure in Afghanistan and fall into a spell of boredom. Duncan rejoins me for a couple of days before departing on the train to Istanbul, from where he will fly home. It’s a sad departure after two very memorable months spent together. I must stay in the city however to examine my options for further travel. My ultimate goal is Russia and Mongolia, and I have a remarkable stroke of luck in finding Mr Kamenev the Russian consular assistant, who is extremely helpful; he is willing to issue me a one-year Russian business visa without any bank statements, HIV test or even a legitimate business reason for visiting Russia (though he suggests that I fabricate one for the application). All I need to do is wait several weeks for an invitation to be processed and sent from St Petersburg.
I leave Tehran after twelve days, and head north-west to the city of Qazvin, with its beautiful tiled mosques and a very fine, vaulted bazaar. Even more impressive however are the ruins of Soltaniyeh, close to the city of Zanjan. Soltaniyeh was once the capital of the Ilkhanid Empire, founded by Hulagu Khan, grandson of Chinggis Khan, who ruled much of south-west Asia during the 13th and 14th Centuries. Today the former capital is little more than a village, but the vast, domed mausoleum of Hulagu still dominates the barren plains. Erected in the early fourteenth century, the 49 metre tall shrine’s vast turquoise dome is one of the largest brick domes in the world. From the exterior, which has lost almost all of its fine tilework, the building is rather brutish and imposing, but the vast interior chamber and upper galleries, reached by staircases which wind around the outer walls, are a magnificent opus of fine brickwork, stucco, and faïence. The contrast of the powerful exterior and delicate interior make it in my opinion one of the more graceful buildings of the Islamic world, and it is perhaps a fine metaphor for the Mongols themselves, whose initial wave of absolute terror gave way perhaps to western Asia’s greatest cultural renaissance.
From Qazvin I cross the western outliers of the Alborz mountains and drop down to the verdant littoral of the Caspian Sea, to the damp coastal town of Rasht which I had visited back in 2003. My host is Setareh, mother of a family who live in a modern apartment in the city centre. Although technically a lake, the Caspian Sea’s damp, salty air give the perfect impression of being at the ocean, something I have not experienced since leaving Sindh months ago. After so long in deserts and at high altitudes, the cool, damp climate makes a pleasant change, despite my pathological dislike of grey skies. However, it is on a trip to an Seljuk castle which lies in the Alborz foothills that I have perhaps my fondest reunion, when I find myself with Ali, Setareh’s eldest son, walking through the cool Caspian cloud forest, with mossy covered rocks and old-growth deciduous trees, swirling mist and a castle around which could almost come from medieval Europe. Thinking back, it’s the first time I’ve walked in a forest since I was in the Himalaya.
From Rasht I drive east once more along the damp coastline, then slightly inland to the city of Sari, capital of the historically notable province of Mazandaran. Modern Sari is a fairly uninteresting town, but it is here that I fall into a small but important demographic of Iran. My host Kiavash, who runs a clothes boutique, comes from an upper-middle class family, but he introduces me to a circle of the Iranian youth who frequent shops such as his; the free, ‘kept’ youth of the rich and powerful, who spend their time driving around town in expensive imported SUVs flirting with the opposite sex, and whose most pressing decision in a day might be what to wear. I visit the home of one such family, who are descended from the Qajar shahs and have a living room furnished with lavish nineteenth century artworks. In the evenings there are parties with girls, drink and more, and I’m frequently left in a state of sheer disbelief at being in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
I reluctantly pull myself out of this world which seems so free and familiar, and re-cross the Alborz mountains to the commuter town of Karaj where I stay with Abol Fazl (Abo), who comes from a working class family and has to be one of the kindest people I have ever met. After spending more than a week in the notorious Evin prison, during which time he was tortured, and for nothing but a rumour spread by someone with whom he had fallen out, Abo is determined to leave his country. Without the money or power to enjoy a life of freedom, Abo is seeking it in the outside world.
I spend several weeks in the family home making trips to Tehran most days, where I start a brief and rather dangerous relationship with a young Iranian woman. I also meet my friend Simon who after failing to enter China with his two donkeys (with which he had planned to walk back to Switzerland), had sold them and bought a rather tired VW Beetle in Islamabad, in which he is instead driving home. We drive north in Simon’s Beetle towards Sari one evening, only for the engine to drop a valve and seize at the top of a cold mountain pass, which requires us to rebuild the engine over several days in Kiavash’s garden, much to the chagrin of his father.
Despite my unusual insights into contemporary Iran, as on previous visits I start to feel the weight of repression and frustration which is evident in much of the youth. Iran is a country with a huge young population in the midst of the growing pains of a modernising society which is slowly and precariously escaping the near-medieval rule of an Islamic theocracy. This theocracy, the Velayat-e Fakir, a party of clerics who claim a divine legitimacy to rule, are driving these young, frustrated Iranians away from Islam, and away from the country, just as the late excesses of the regime of the last Shah drove them to the seminaries and allowed the mullahs to hijack a popular revolution. Civil unrest is growing and potentially disastrous economic changes loom on the horizon in what seems a time-honoured repetition of the turbulent and fast-moving history of Iran.
Once I have finally collected the necessary visas, I bid farewell to my new acquaintances and drive through the night, making one final crossing of the Alborz mountains, then driving up the western Caspain coast, a narrow strip of sodden land below tall, lush mountains in which fine tea is grown, up to the port and border town of Astara. Here I say my final goodbye to the conservative Islamic societies of Asia, and slip into Azerbaijan.