Sunday, 18 November 2007

Persia (Chapter 6, Teheran to Meshed, Persia)

Our toughening-up course, over the harsh mountains and deserts of Turkey and Persia, stood us in good stead for the next lap: one of the most difficult-even dangerous-of the whole journey. From Teheran to Meshed was roughly nine hundred kilometres, all of the distance over rugged hewn tracks. I did everything possible in Teheran to make certain that the scooter was completely road worthy-or rather trackworthy-for the gruelling test. If we were able to complete the stretch without mishap, most of our worries would be not exactly over, but at least subdued.

We were very quiet on the evening of our departure, occupied with unhappy thoughts of waterless infinity and the very real possibility that the machine might fail at a critical time. It's always worse to anticipate, for as soon as we started our fears would vanish, but we were both afraid of the immensity of barren distance that separated us from the next city. There was a town halfway-Shahrud-and a few scattered villages along the track, but these were really no more than oases, where we could pause briefly before continuing. I could not consider actually resting until those nine hundred sizzling kilometres were behind us.

So, hopefully, we bade our Persian friends and their fascinating capital a shaky farewell and, in the cool evening, continued our Odyssey.

There was nothing in the least pleasant about the next brief chapter in our lives. Days on end, and nights, with no variation in a sound that constantly smote our ears, the high-pitched, blessedly steady, hum of the engine, conquering an endless scorched distance yard by yard. Our vision was concentrated upon the tantalizing brown ribbon ahead. Whirls of dust rose from it, there were unaccountable swift scurries of sand; sometimes rocks emerged; the desolation on either side was that of a dead planet. No villages, except on rare days, no other road, not even the ruins of dwellings or a sign of man or beast; and no horizon to gaze towards eagerly, for the desert swung up to meet the amber sky.

The power and the immensity of the desert struck us almost tangibly, with only our one piston-no bigger than a cup-keeping Nita and me from its savage grasp. There was more vaporization trouble. I was not concerned with appearances; without a thought I tossed away the two side panels which so smartly shielded the works. Now the engine was totally exposed, but cooling at once became more efficient. I say 'cooling' reservedly: there was nothing cool on the road to Meshed, not even the nights.

We lay awake, at the side of the desolate track, looking at the low-hanging stars. It was cool up there, in that great velvet silence, but on the tortured earth it was still hot, even at two in the morning. I like deserts, the wilderness, the savage majesty, the humbling silence. I like the heat too, provided there is some escape from the driving sand-laden blasts of hot air that fill the eyes, the nostrils, and the very pores of the skin.

One morning we awoke to see a huge square chunk of rock thrusting skywards in the far distance. At six o'clock, after brewing up, eating a tin of bully beef and some biscuits, we started off towards the landmark. It was still on the skyline at noon and we reached it just before dark. Our mileage for that day was exactly fifty miles of atrocious track, covered mostly in second gear. We saw no other human being-not even a beast-the whole day. We spoke rarely, awed by the dead world and by our own delicate position. Two small tyres, punished relentlessly, kept us just clear of the almost actively hostile land.

The deserts and the seas remain as man's last enemies. They are fearsome in their size. Nothing could be more dissolving than the sea; nothing drier than the dehydrating dryness of the desert. All Persians are aware of this, for the desert covers their land. Nearly everywhere it encroaches on towns and villages alike, smothers cities and reduces them back to dust. That is why these people are so water conscious, with their gardens of tinkling miniature waterfalls and ornate lily-ponds. The smallest bit of shade or moisture may be enough to save a man's physical condition and his sanity.

The brief stops that we made in the ancient communities along the road were blessed interludes. Hospitality was overflowing from the almost destitute inhabitants. They knew what had been endured to reach their homes; they marvelled at the Prima and its capabilities, and were demonstrative towards us-sunburnt as themselves-who had tackled the desert almost as they did.

Miraculously, the scooter continued to run across the arid surface, burning all sorts of weird concoctions loosely labelled petrol and oil. We had a lot of spills, of course, but were very hardened and took them almost in our stride. There was not an ounce of superfluous flesh on either of us by then and we had become adept at rolling expertly when the front wheel hit a soft patch sending the machine into an uncontrollable side-slip. Water, the big problem, we hoarded like a couple of misers, drinking only in the early morning and at night. We gave up washing ourselves or any of our equipment or clothing. The stubble on my chin gradually lengthened into a beard. Nita's biggest worry was her hair. No matter how she swathed her head in scarves, the sand drifted through the coverings and turned the glossy black into matt white. Our emotions were dormant during those days of battle with the desert. We were neither happy nor disgruntled, but certainly too exhausted to argue or converse much about anything. We just rode. Distances we thought of in terms of time rather than miles. Another day nearer, another hour behind us. We ate very little, drank water twice a day and I smoked a great deal. The unattainable, intangible Meshed gradually became a goal of substance. We, like Persian nomads, began to live for the day when riding over the desert we would see for the first time the green of the big oasis.

Meshed, the Holy City, leapt up out of the yellow desert, a bustling Oriental metropolis situated, for no apparent reason, in the middle of nowhere. A great glittering golden dome of a mosque dominated the rest of the city. This was the old Persia, still very much in existence; there was no Pepsi-Cola here.