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.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Persia (Chapter 6, Teheran, Persia)

As always we were extremely interested in the state of the road ahead of us, this time to Teheran. Ideas on conditions varied, from good to impossible, according to the whim of the speaker and whether he wanted to put our minds at rest or alarm us. As always, too, we knew our asking was really pointless. It had to be tackled in order to find the answer, but enquiring was hard to resist. In general the road was worse than we had expected. With a good tarmac road under our wheels we could have reached Teheran in three days with ease, as it was we were on the track for nine. I believe that for most of the six hundred kilometres (which doesn't sound much, said quickly) I was in second gear. The ribbon, alternately mountainous and flat, was deeply corrugated from one city to the other.

We passed through a number of small towns where the road deteriorated rather than improved: Mianeh, Nikpei, Nimavar. On the seventh day-more dead than alive-we reached Kazvin, about fifty miles from the shores of the Caspian. Had the road been metalled we would have shot across the intervening gap and spent a few hours soaking our tired bodies in the sea. As it was, we spent the night in a deserted caravanserai just outside the town. It was normal for us, even with a late night, to waken as soon as the sun rose, but within the four mud walls of the once bustling night stop of camel-trains, we slept, with only insects and a stray dog for company, until two in the afternoon. When, still drooping and aching in every joint, we remounted for the last stretch, it was as though we had stopped for only a few minutes. On arriving in the capital, utterly fatigued, we made our way through the streaming crowds, gasping in a temperature of over a hundred degrees, past numerous Pepsi-Cola signs to the haven of the British Embassy.

So tanned were we from the days of burning sun and wind, that the Security Guard could not at first believe that we were English: finally convinced, his first question was, 'Have you heard the latest test score?'

'No,' I replied tartly, 'we have not; but we did hear that the Embassy might give us washing facilities and advise us on a reasonable hotel.' We were shown to a wash-room and later ushered into the presence of one of the secretaries, who only seemed able to recommend the most luxurious hotel. We received no constructive suggestions, no friendliness, merely a few officious platitudes. Finally, we found rooms on the top floor of a crowded hotel which gave us a wonderful view of the street below and of
people in the tenements opposite.

One falls easily into the life of Teheran. Shaded streets, mosques, fountains, and the smell of the East blend with a city that is civilized, permanent, and familiar. Furious little taxi-cabs, many of them English cars, dart skilfully in and out among the pedestrians. Here one can buy French daily newspapers, see some excellent modern architecture vying with bazaars of ancient Persia, buy absolutely all or any of the latest commodities of modern living in the wide shopping centres (including Pepsi-Cola), dine in a first-class air-conditioned restaurant, or eat syrupy-sweet cakes and drink the yellow wines. One cannot be bored in Teheran.

It was obvious, on that first evening, that the last savage stretch of dust and desert had not left our little expedition unscathed. Nita complained of a dizzy headache and a terrible heaviness in her legs. I dosed her with aspirin and put her to bed early. For a few days we would forget all about the track. The grace, the gaiety of Teheran, on that first day ended with Nita running a high temperature. It was stifling in those upper rooms too, and, tired as we were, it was one o'clock before I finally switched off the light. The hot night air came through the open windows in waves of oven-heat. The sheet beneath me was soaking wet. The heat of the desert is preferable to the gasping furnace of the city.

The next morning Nita was feeling worse. I told her to try and sleep while I went in search of a doctor. The British Embassy were coldly helpful and suggested I try the resident doctor who might be able to 'administer'. They were a bit scornful of the symptoms, putting it down with certainty to 'Teheran Tummy', which every newcomer has to suffer, the water being piped by the open drainage system, with no sewerage. I wasn't too sure; when we were in West Africa they had told me my malady was 'Kano Tummy'; and it turned out to be a severe dose of dysentery. I got the doctor to my wife with all haste. He confirmed the general opinion: it was indeed that sapping, but fortunately transient, 'T.T.'; he warned us about drinking the water and prescribed a diet of mast (yoghourt) for the next three days. Nita smiled wanly at this-yoghourt was one of her pet aversions. But for three days it was all she ate, and it effected a rapid cure.

We celebrated her first day out of bed by buying another pair of jeans to replace the torn and sun-faded pair she had been wearing since leaving home. In three days she had lost exactly a stone in weight, and the little Jewish tailor had trouble finding a pair small enough to fit. We spent the cooler hours of the morning walking around the huge underground bazaar and while we were haggling over a square of silk, three young men introduced themselves and helped us to acquire the scarf at a reasonable price. One of them, a strong-faced, athletic-looking fellow, turned out to be the long-jump champion of Persia, Nasser Najen. We chatted with the champion and the other two, who were his brothers, for quite some time, finishing up lunching with them and receiving an invitation to visit the city stadium that evening to watch the jumping practice.

Most nations take their sport seriously, but the Persians take theirs more seriously than most. There was a practice football match in progress when we arrived and I have rarely seen a more exciting display of skill and enthusiasm. The pace-in spite of the heat-was fast and unabating. Most of the moves were cunning and full of inventive sparkle. It was a great pleasure to watch. The Teheran stadium has everything a sportsman could wish for. In addition to the main arena, there were all sorts of smaller grounds, open-air swimming-pools, tennis courts, cycle-tracks, and games squares. We watched Nasser Najen limbering up, then finally discarding his track-suit to give a display of co-ordinated beauty of motion that was undoubtedly in world-championship class.

We talked for many hours to this fine athlete, and his views on his country were well formed and critical. He told us that everyone was aware of decay, both religious and social, but apathetic about doing something to arrest it. The greatest need was for education-to teach, among other things, integrity. There was too much corruption, too much graft. And the contrast between primitive villages and industrial towns and cities would have to be softened. At the moment they were utterly foreign to each other. We had to agree; our road had led us through country where the sight of a lorry passing in a cloud of dust was a shock, a sight that for a moment was unacceptable to our minds already steeped in the aura of a long-dead empire. Teheran itself had been a revelation of contrast, particularly emphasized by our slow approach. Like Turkey, Persia's need is primarily for sound communications, veins of life-blood to the remote wilderness dwellers. Only then can any concrete plan for a new life be embarked upon. Another eminent Persian told us that too many people were prone to live by the principles of the Persian poets, that life was to be enjoyed sensually. He felt that the spirit of the Rubaiyat was leading modern Persia into the ancient dust of Persepolis.
One more visit to the Embassy produced the information that our next stop, Meshed, was in the middle of a holy month, and that Nita would have to be careful to keep her hair and wrists covered in that town. The First Secretary told me that the people were fanatical in their sacred city, especially at the time of rejoicing. We also learnt, on our last day in the capital, that we could have camped on the lawn of the Embassy and had the use of an excellent swimming-pool in the grounds. It was nice to know what we could have done if someone had given us permission three days earlier.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Persia (Chapter 6, Tabriz, Persia)

Our view of Tabriz was clouded by the trouble we had in getting there. The road from the border held all the ingredients of purgatory: dust, heat, corrugations, and some of the longest miles we had ever travelled. At least it was not monotonous and neither of us could complain of feeling 'liverish' since leaving Europe. Already the luxury of metalled roads was just a dream. Water began to be a problem and we gave up indiscriminate drinking, particularly during the middle day.

At the point where aching muscles and burning thighs cried . Stop', a cluster of twinkling lights on the horizon of darkness spurred us on to a last grand effort. Distances in the Persian night we found hard to judge and our estimated half-hour to the comfort of civilization turned out to be one and a half hours before Tabriz engulfed us with friendly bustling crowds and busy streets.

Immediate needs were food and somewhere to sleep. We found both in a modest hotel, a balconied wooden building huddled cosily around a delightful and typically Persian garden. In the centre, a lily pool was floodlit with coloured lights strung from the cypress trees. On crazy paving, dining-tables were laid out among the flowerbeds. The night was warm, pungent with the heavy aroma of exotic blooms and filled with the whine of hungry mosquitoes.

Although it was ten o'clock, a swarthy, solicitous proprietor ministered to all our wants and, after installing the scooter safely in a garage and putting our gear into a balcony room overlooking the pond, we took our places, quite alone, at one of the garden tables, to be served in due course with one of Persia's favourite repasts-shishlik. Tender cuts of mutton roasted over charcoal and skewered on sticks were surrounded by gigantic side dishes, with the most comprehensive salad one could wish for. There was enough food to satisfy six normal adults. However, we were not normal, we were not in a hurry, we had eaten very little in the past two days, and it would be some time before another feast like this would be placed before us. We ate the lot.

Physical exhaustion is not an unpleasant state, provided the stomach is full and there is a comfortable bed near at hand. We reached the stage where we could not take another lettuce leaf, or another sip of the clear, ice-cold water, when to utter a sentence of more than two words was an effort. Nine days of scootering over ruts was more than enough to make us ready for blessed oblivion. I think we would have got it, too, had the bedrooms been provided with mosquito-nets. The Persian variety of mosquito is highly pestiferous, with a vicious whine that cannot be ignored, for it heralds a needle-jab somewhere on the anatomy. There were a great many squadrons active that night and we arose at nine o'clock the next morning, hollow-eyed as ever and well peppered with burning itches. These were not malarial, just painful. The gargantuan meal, the comfortable beds, and the bites cost us about thirty shillings.

The next morning I got busy on the wearying business of changing money again; this time, liras into rials. While I was in the midst of negotiations, a dark little man wearing a fez attached himself to me and despite my repeated assurances that no guide was needed-or indeed wanted-he insisted on accompanying me in and out of the bank and on a tour of the shopping area in search of yet another water bottle. My companion tried to sell
me a taxi ride, periodically pointing to the garishly painted, lunatic-driven cars, for twenty rials to anywhere in the city. Ten rials, I learned later, would be ample.

Tabriz was hot, interesting, and a blend of ancient and ultramodern. The shops and bazaars were well stocked with internationally familiar goods, and street vendors, carrying overflowing trays of cheap Japanese brie-a.-brae, were everywhere. One cinema exhorted the inhabitants, with lurid posters written in English, to see Hollywood's latest spectacle, 'Big Men in Small Planes'; there was no queue.

I still had my faithful follower who gave up trying to sell taxis and began tempting me with hand-made carpets, the cheapest and finest in all Persia. If I would just accompany him to the house of a friend, I would be 'left gasping' at the beauty of his work. No carpets, I said. We walked on together in silence. From nearly every shop and emporium a wireless blared the dreadful wail that is so unacceptable to western ears. Urchins darted between and around us with trays of sweets and cigarettes; at one time there were five bright-eyed little faces under outsize turbans, begging me to try their wares. My self-appointed guide was cursing them and lauding his friend's carpets in the same breath. I gave up looking for a water bottle. We got nearer to the hotel and my companion hastily switched from carpets to silverwork-the most fabulous filigree on earth, he assured me. He flatly refused to accept my indifference to his offers, and would not believe that a visiting infidel could be in Tabriz and remain uninterested in its fine craftsmanship. If Nita and I had owned a van instead of a scooter, with money to spare, we would have loaded the thing down with Tabriz workmanship, for what I did see was excellent. But we had to stick to essentials. I reached the hotel without spending and the little middle-man, puzzled and bewildered, slipped away into the crowds.