Hitchhike to India legs 46/47: Tehran to Ashgabat

Friday 27 November

I had finally scored my visas.  There was nothing keeping me in Iran. Well, nothing I’d write about just now anyway, and the time was drawing nigh to depart.  Visas are date specific, so I needed to enter Turkmenistan on the 27th of November and cross is within 5 days.  So at the time of leaving Tehran at 6 am on the 26th, I assumed I’d planned it all perfectly…

A word about that departure.  My wonderful couchsurf host Honey had put me up and put up with me for about a month on and off.  She let me stay in her place while she worked, and took me on various excursions around Iran.  It was safe to say she was one of the best hosts I’ve had in my still fairly limited surfing experience, but we’d not always seen eye to eye.

I was attempting to slip away with little fuss so’s not to wake her, but I’d failed, and she came sleepily out to say goodbye.  Let’s just say as far as goodbyes go it was interesting.  And by interesting I mean passionate.  And by passionate I mean I shouldn’t have left.  We’d been dancing around each other having arguments more often than not, but maybe this was the reason why.  Nonetheless, the taxi was waiting, the meter running, and sure – there’d be other dames…

I’d made a contact with a super friendly taxi driver about a month back who gave me his number in case I ever needed a lift in the city.  It just so happened that I did, as getting to where I needed to be in a city like Tehran would have been a logistical nightmare.  With such a long way to go, I opted to pay him to take me to the city limits, and hopefully out of range of do-gooders trying to force me to take the autobus.

Except it didn’t cost me a penny.  Regardless of driving for nearly an hour through traffic and across Tehran, Shapoor doesn’t charge me a bean, inspite of my protestations.  I was on the highway with the sun just testing the sky around 7 am.  An electric kiss and a free ride?  The day had started well.

And my luck was to continue.  I spy a speed bump and strategically position myself to pester the slowing traffic, but before I even manage to produce my sign, I’m being bundled into the back of a car by a couple of students, the driver speaking perfect English.  They can only take me 20K, but as ever with hitching long distance, getting out of the city is vital.  They marvel at my “smartphone google map” – which is a bit of a paper with a line drawn on it, and after an impromptu roadside selfie session (honestly I’d love to see all these pictures from my years of hitching), I’m in a great spot basking in warm winter sun and walking on air.

And it continues, albeit somewhat confusingly.  An old, classic Mercedes-Benz pulls next to me and its driver tries his best to understand what I need, but the conversation is going nowhere.  Many people simply don’t understand that you want to be hitchhiking.  That you don’t want the autobus or a train.  That you’re clearly out of your mind but it’s ok because you’re a foreigner.  I didn’t make this really nice sign for the good of my health or because I’m incapable of finding a bus station.  After twenty minutes he’s still  on the phone to someone and parked right in my designated space to allow truckers to pull in.  It’s getting annoying.  I just want him to give up and move on.

But persisting, he beckons me over and puts the phone to my ear.  A voice on the end of the line ascertains what I’m trying to do, and I hand the device back over.  A little reluctantly I find myself in the passenger seat but on the move again, apparently with a firm understanding of the situation.  For all the back and forth, he can’t actually take me very far are all, but every little helps.  About ten minutes into the short drive in very broken English he insists I come and meet his 20 day old daughter.

The father, the son, the daughter and the un-holy ghost.  Iranian hospitality

The father, the son, the daughter and the un-holy ghost. Iranian hospitality

Alas my attempts to explain I have a long way to go and little time to do it fall on deaf ears.  Not to mention my baby phobia.  Clearly a very proud new father and peddler of kindness, before long I’m sitting in his cosy home being fed by a grinning Iranian family.  Even during my flight from the country they’re still killing me with kindness.  But true to his word and appreciative of the distance I have to travel, it’s short and sweet, and thankfully they don’t make me hold the child.  In leaving they thrust a days supply of food into my hands (which one could easily ration for two, and would force my pack to be included as check on luggage) and heartily wave me on my merry way.  Iranian hospitality at its best.

A 20 day old little bundle of joy.  I would have probably dropped her

A 20 day old little bundle of joy. I would have probably dropped her

And my kind host doesn’t stop there as he takes me to a taxi lane somewhere outside his town.  By now he’s clued up on my task, and is taking great delight in conversing with his peers standing and smoking by car doors.

“FarsifarsiEHSTOOARTfarsifarsiEHSCOTLANDfarsifarsiINDIA!”

My gracious host flagging down cars

My gracious host flagging down cars

It is with this repeated conversation that he scores me a free taxi ride to Semnan – the first significant way point.  Fed, watered, and hands shaken, I’m finally on my way.

I’m deposited at a police check point and truck stop.  Easy peasy pickings, but the day isn’t getting any younger and I really need a long distance hitch.  It’s not long before I strike gold, and a young guy pulls in to take me as far as Sabzevar.  That’s some 450 KM and in a fast car.  I’m cooking on gas.

This for miles.  I think there are some camels if you look close enough

This for miles. I think there are some camels if you look close enough

But the sheer vastness of this country begins to take its toll and although I’ve had a near perfect start, I’m still a fair distance off my destination as night is falling.  Mile after mile of the same, dry, shrubby landscape zips past the lowered window and I realise there’s no option but to push on into the night.  Winter is not the friend of the hitchhiker.

Night hitching in Iran.  Mechanics somewhere on the left

Night hitching in Iran. Mechanics somewhere on the left

It’s dark by the time he’s pulling away to his home.  He offered my a place to stay for the night, but with the border still some leagues away, it’s for the best that I at least make an attempt to get close to it.  It all comes down to this damn Turkmenistan visa.  With only 5 days allowed, I need to be crossing early tomorrow to get the most out of my quota.  But if I didn’t have to do that I would have an extra ten days in Iran, and THAT could have been interesting.

The light has taken the heat, and see my breath on the air for the first time this year.  My previous driver has been another angel in driving me through the built up areas to deposit me on the highway out of town.  Negotiating areas of population can be a tough task for free-loaders.  I do like getting picked up by young guys.  They just get me.  Y’know…?

Fending off the predominately good-humoured attentions of a bunch of mechanics at the road side and I’m saved by a shared taxi.  My only blight with an otherwise perfect day of hitching was the rather aggressive way in which one man was attempting to tell me I’d never in a million years get a ride for free and that in exchange for my guitar he would take me to my destination.  Trying to explain the logic to someone that you’ve managed to hitch through 28 countries without payment is useless.   In the circumstances, I don’t mind parting with the tiny sum of money to get me over the finish line for tonight, and as I still don’t have a place to sleep, $3 isn’t a bad price to get me to a roof over my head and lock on my door.

Digs for the night.  Slightly concerned about gas leaks

Digs for the night. Slightly concerned about gas leaks

And I feel I need it too.  It’s comfortable enough, but the toilet reeks of nutty poo, it appears I’m the only person staying here, and the proprietor is that sort of limping, one-eyed, man-servant to the human centipede doctor.  It’s ten bucks for the room and I welcomingly pass out from exhaustion and the heat from the broken boiler.  Or maybe the gas they were pumping into the room.

The Iranian care package from earlier today - saved my life

The Iranian care package from earlier today – saved my life

I wake with light trying to get round a filthy curtain.  There’s no shower that I can see (and if there was one it would be freezing cold – so I’m happy to have the excuse), and I’m out the door as soon as I’ve shivered into my clothes.  There’s not a sinner on the streets, and I stutter a question and answer from a couple of old boys hanging on a corner.

Quchan in the morning

Quchan in the morning

“Turkmenistan? Turkmenistan? Ashgabat? Ashgabat?!”  I make big pointy gestures in the direction I think I need to be going.

This kind of thing is never simple.  Instead of a straightforward yes or no, there’s always an inquest.  And nobody every really seems to know anything about the place they actually live in.  Between the two of them I hear a life story, before finally deciding that I am indeed going the right way.  Thanking them, I set off to march in the direction of what I hope is the edge of the city on the northern side, fending off a significant amount of taxis in the process.

They love these here.  Sugary swizzle sticks for tea and coffee

They love these here. Sugary swizzle sticks for tea and coffee

Surprisingly enough, I’m exactly where I need to be, and at that moment of time, a car swings in seeing my ‘TM’ sign.  Lo and behold, he is a customs officer on the Iranian side, and can take me all the way to the border.  For $5.  I consider this for a moment, and realise I’m already eating into my first of five days in Turkmenistan.  As there is nobody else on the road (and I’m unlikely to catch another border official) I allow myself the cheat.  To be honest, the free hitchhike goes out the window until I’m through Turkmenistan.  The transit visa is not the hitchers friend.

His name was Smile.  Apparently.  He was pretty cool - working this border for 40 years

His name was Smile apparently. He was pretty cool – working this border for 40 years

My driver speaks little English, but when he does it becomes a time-passing game to figure out what he’s actually on about.  He pauses between words for the length of a bible while I presume he’s trying to find the translation, or he’s forgotten what he’s trying to say.  A sample sentence can be found below.  Most of the time I just nodded and said ‘yes!’

“You…  …  …  tourist…  …  …  …  …  tourist…  …  …  …they…  …river…  …  …  …fifteen dollar…  …river… … …go…  …fifteen dollar… …and go.”

I think he was trying to tell me I owed him $15 instead of $5, and my suspicions are confirmed when indeed at the border he demands the higher sum.  Credit to him though he backs down and smiles when I stick to my guns and pay him a fiver, and we both laugh off the fact that he was blatantly at it.  My luck holds again when a taxi going the rest of the way to customs offers me a free ride.  According to my crap phone, it’s approaching midday.

Leaving Iran behind

Leaving Iran behind

Then it just becomes a nightmare.  The shit hits the fan.  Either I’m really unlucky with my timing, or it’s like this everyday, but I seem to be attempting to cross at the exact moment a host of Turkmens are returning from an Iranian shopping spree.  Now you would have thought that the sensible thing to do would be to let the solo traveler – who sticks out like a sore thumb – quickly cross before rifling through everything everyone has bought.  Everything.  EVERYTHING.  But no.  That would be far too sensible.  And not only that, but aside from the extortionate $85 I’ve paid for a visa for five days, they have the audacity to ask for another $12 to cross the border!  The sheer cheek of it!  This had better be one fucking outstanding country!

Illegal photo from the hip.  Waiting at the Turkmenistan border

Illegal photo from the hip. Waiting at the Turkmenistan border

And so I become invisible.  I’m sitting waiting at the “bank” door to be robbed of my twelve bucks, while slowly but surely large women drag their stuff through customs.  I’m waiting two hours.  Two hours!  And not only that, but by the time I finally cross, I’ve realised it’s actually two o’clock in the afternoon!  I’ve crossed a time zone!  And not only that – I’ve somehow lost another hour from somewhere as well!  I’m in a black hole of time!  And it didn’t help matters when the ever suspicious Turkmen border guards remove everything from all my packs to search for guns and drugs.

So it’s mid-afternoon when I’m in a new country, and with no confirmed place to stay tonight (my confirmed couch-surf host has been strangely silent) I take the shuttle bus to the edge of town.  For some reason all the long distance trucks have disappeared, and I’m wedged in to a tatty rust-bucket with a bus load of Turkmen shoppers.

Barf washing powder?!  No thanks!  (It means snow in farsi)

Barf washing powder?! No thanks! (It means snow in farsi)

There’s nobody and nothing here.  Deposited on the city outskirts and I can’t find an internet cafe, or a money exchange place, and I’ve not actually seen a real life person for that matter.  I stumble into the first open place I see, and a young lady with a family takes pity on my predicament, feeds me back at her apartment, before arranging for her outlandishly rich friend to take me to a hotel in his brand new land cruiser.  But this is where the hospitality ends.

I did take a photo of the family, but they requested it not posted to the internet.  Welcome to Turkmenistan...

I did take a photo of the family, but they requested it not posted to the internet. Welcome to Turkmenistan…

The hotel, one of the cheapest at $35 a night, is actually full.  I’m left to wander the streets as night falls, trying to figure out where I’m sleeping.  I contemplate one of the empty fountains, and I’m on the cusp of preparing myself for a night on the streets when I stumble upon the offices of a tour company still.  Ducking inside, thankfully they speak English, and the very kind receptionist calls round a few hotels to find me a cheap deal.  The standard $35 is the only option, and after they change me some money and put me in a cab, I’m standing in what can only be described as the worst hotel room I’ve ever stayed in.  It’s more like a squatters crack den, but at least it’s better than sleeping on the streets.  Just.

35 dollar shit hole

35 dollar shit hole

So after 2 days, 8 rides and 961 KM and I’ve somehow made it to Ashgabat.  I could get a little teary eyed at departing Iran, but I don’t want the cockroaches to see weakness.  Now there’s only four full days left to explore as much of this country as I can, and then get out.   It’s about to get super, super weird.

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Tehran and leaving Iran

Wednesday 25 November

I’ve stayed on and off just under a month in Tehran, but had it not been for visa necessity, I probably wouldn’t have stayed more than a couple of days.  Consequently most of the time I’ve spent hiding in my very kind couch-surf hosts apartment while I wait for the powers that be to either grant or deny my entry into Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.  As much as I have loved being in Iran and seeing this beautiful country – I detest its capital city.

Traffic in Tehran.  Cross the street with balls of steel or hide behind a local

Traffic in Tehran. Cross the street with balls of steel or hide behind a local

Those that know me well will understand one major reason why.  I loath big cities.  I despise large groups of people in one place (even attending a concert is a struggle for me these days) and I abhor the rat-race in all its forms. Rich or poor, for better or for worse, I cannot abide this many people trying to make a living in one place.  It’s disgusting.

The major advantage of this is you're not pressed into some dudes armpit for an hour

The major advantage of this is you’re not pressed into some dudes armpit for an hour

I’ve done the touristy thing of course, but save from a few pocket highlights such as the mountain area of Darband, The Golestan Palace and photographing the bazaars, Tehran has little to offer me.  With a population of around 9 million in the city and a further 16 million wider-spread, you can understand why.  It’s a dense, claustrophobic, traffic-contested, noise infested, raucous, smog hole.  I would be interested to know how long I spent trapped underground making my way across town on the metro.  I’ll never get that time back.

The beautiful grounds of the Golestan palace

The beautiful grounds of the Golestan palace

I think that’s what really hammered the final nail into the coffin of Tehran.  At any time of day or night, there is no respite from the sheer amount of people stomping to their destinations, shoe-horned into carriages, jostling for position on the escalators.  Hanieh, my CS-host, has to get up at 5 am to make it into her work on time – such is the size of the window of clear roads, before all hell breaks loose and it’s taking an hour to travel what should take ten minutes.  It’s unforgiving, it’s stressful and it’s an environmental activists nightmare.  Of course comparisons can be drawn with regard to any major metropolis.  It’s quite simple – if you like big cities, Tehran is for you.  If you don’t – for the love of all that’s holy get out while you can.

Leaving the city at dawn.  The Milad tower - new symbol of Tehran

Leaving the city at dawn. The Milad tower – new symbol of Tehran

In its defence, the people are wonderful – but the same can be said for all over this amazing country.  Walking through the bustling bazaars in Tehran has been a highlight, smelling the smells of the silk road, bartering for goods, and my fingers aching from relentless handshakes, eyes blinded with smiles.  As I reflect back on my time here, I can see this interesting juxtaposition between wonderful hospitality, friendship and stunning scenery, versus draconian laws, paranoia and religious suppression.  Iranians are fighting to promote their country as safe, welcoming and tourist friendly but they’re facing an uphill struggle against a government that simply replaced a regime for another one.

The Tajrish Bazaar

The Tajrish Bazaar

Certain well-known websites are banned, the influences of the outside world regulated, and alcohol is prohibited, but available on the black market.  Getting caught bootlegging carries a heavy price.  Iranians in Tehran (and indeed the whole country) party hard in secret, and as I’ve already discovered, this can lead to dangerous excess.  Sex is forbidden unless married or engaged, and woe betide you if you’re caught doing that out-of-wedlock.  I’ve been making a running joke concerned I’ll get my hand cut off if I touch a girl in public.  So unless you have your own place, a trustworthy mate, the back of your car or your parents are out-of-town – give it up.  You need a marriage certificate to be in a hotel room together.  Couch-surfing isn’t allowed but it goes on anyway.  I had to be quiet when anyone telephoned, sneak in past the neighbours (everyone is suspicious and a potential curtain twitcher) and under no circumstances was I to answer the door.  After a while it begins to feel like you’re trapped – because you are.

“You’ve only been here a month – imagine what it’s like living here for 30 years.”

I don’t know I’m born.

The Azadi tower

The Azadi tower

And then there’s a rise in alcoholism and STDs!  Is it any wonder?!  Sex education is non-existent and the illegal booze made at home in a bath-tub isn’t so hot on the liver.  It’s like anything you tell someone not to do, they’re more likely to do it harder, faster, stronger.  I often cite a Star Wars reference so apt in such circumstances, when Princess Leia is addressing Governor Tarkin:

“The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”

Never a truer word was spoken.

Banners for the Imam Hussain funeral

Banners for the Imam Hussein funeral

Not surprisingly a large percentage of the population are a bit pissed off with all this.  Many young people want out, with Germany being a preferable choice, and I’ve been asking every friend I’ve met and made if the situation could change.  But as always with such politics, even a whisper of discontent could potentially bring the jackboot.   The government (all governments) don’t want people to think for or educate themselves, so Iran is shrouded in mystery to the outside world and hidden behind a curtain of fear.  Just ask any one of my friends or family in the UK or States about my decision to come here and they would question my sanity.  “Don’t go there it’s dangerous.  It’s a dust bowl filled with terrorists.” NO!  I’M GOING!  Don’t believe what you hear or read in the press!

And while you’re here, you just get the sneaking suspicion that with the sheer beauty of the place, the incomparable warmth of the people, hospitality and unrivaled safety (seriously I’ve never been in a more secure country than Iran – I’d happily walk anywhere at night with everything I owned), if the government and religious leaders would just change down a gear for a moment and removed that giant stick up their ass, Iran would be one of the most amazing countries in the world.  But as it stands, never have I been to a place in more desperate need of a massive blow job.

Or maybe that’s just me.

I could write passage after passage about this place, but pictures speak a thousand words they say.  I hope you enjoy the shots below, but really the best thing you could do is to pick up your passport and come and see Iran for yourselves.  You’ll love it even if you drink beer and have sex, and you’ll love it if you don’t.  I learned a lot about their culture, I learned a lot about myself, and I’m a little step closer to finding Stu.

Thank you to everyone who made my experience in Iran so incredible and memorable – you know who you are.  I hope you all find what you’re looking for too.  Hopefully one day Iran gets the freedom and admiration it deserves, and until will meet again –  خداحافظی برادران و خواهران من  Goodbye my brothers and sisters.  Xxx

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Iranian party bus

Thursday 19 November

With time in Iran running out I’d still not managed the one thing I was looking forward to the most: riding a camel.  For one reason or another a trip to the desert had eluded me, and was looking increasingly unlikely, as every tour pointed to extortionately outlandish fees to be on the back of the beast.  I was beginning to despair, and unless I (st)humped up $200 (sorry), I wasn’t going to get any quadruped action.  That is until my friend Sarvenaz stepped in.

Umm.  That sounded wrong.  I didn’t mean that she has four feet and I got some action from her…I meant that she – oh never mind.  Anyway with her help I find myself on a bus leaving late for the wilderness, with the promise of sand dunes, salt lakes, all night camp fires and of course, those fly ridden, spitting, stinking ships of the desert.  Little did I know I was on a party bus tour.

Sarvenaz finds me sand

Sarvenaz finds me sand

So there was little old me thinking it was a mini-van filled with quiet travelers.  There’d be the shy couple from Switzerland.  Several Asians looking incredibly fashionable.  A token Aussie not giving a fuck.  Instead I realise what I’ve let myself in for as soon as the bus pulls out of the city.  Curtains are drawn, the gangway fills and truly horrible, ear bleeding “music” obliterates the bus sound system.  The bass speakers are trying to take off.  Iranians snatch any opportunity to party.

And it feels like club 18-30.  The music pauses for a moment as the tour leader demands we all stand and introduce ourselves, indicating if we’re single or not.  It’s fascinating to watch nobody giving a shit until girls are speaking.  I attempt my  best Farsi, being the only native English speaker along for the ride.  This is either going to be a heap of fun,or I’ve gone on holiday by mistake.

Either way the music is relentless, and so too the dance moves of a six year old kid someone has brought along for comedy value. He’s throwing out shapes like a Bee Gee, much to the delight of the increasingly amorous revelers in the gangway.  Ha-jibs are off, and there’s some serious bump n’ grind happening against any leg within touching distance.  Who says you need alcohol to have fun?!

Well, I do actually.  They demand I dance on several occasions, but devoid of the demon drink, I don’t have the courage to do it sober.  In fact I’m borderline offended anyone would ask me to try.  I’d just feel stupid.  But the party clientele nonetheless are whooping and wooing as if they’ve downed a bottle of champagne, it’s New Years Eve and they’re wearing glittery cowboy hats.  But the cat is out the bag a while later, when I find out they’ve been supping on moonshine at the back of the bus like the naughty school kids they are.

The Caravansary

The Caravansary

Around 3 am we pull into the Caravansary, decant from the bus and spill out into the desert.  A person of authority drags a bush from somewhere and sets it alight.  Before long there’s a blaze going, a girl is holding her nose to do shots, Iranian acapella karaoke busts out, and someone is passing round a joint.  I give up trying to get my arty star photography bollocks and take a hit.  A roman candle burst into life amid cheers.

Desert fireworks

Desert fireworks

Mans obsession with fire

Mans obsession with fire

The only downside to this whole scenario, is that it’s over before it’s begun.  In all too short a time the drink has run dry, the dawn tickles the horizon and the embers fade.  Much like the firework so instant and so desperate in its brief existence, so too the Iranian party.  No ten crates of Stella here.  No waiting at 10 am for the offy to open for more.  The vodka is in a pocket sized water bottle.  When it’s over it’s over.

Coming down

Coming down

And in the middle of this, Sarvenaz is accosted by an inebriated female, with a rather odd question.  Incorrectly assuming that we’re hooking up, the pissed up local is fascinated to know what a western man sounds like when having sex.  She mentions something about how I’ve already been making suggestive sex noises (not quite sure how that came about or quite what she’s referring to) and she is desperate to know what auditory delights I utter in the throes of passion.  Alas Sarvenaz has no knowledge of this, and alas that I didn’t get the opportunity to offer them all an option to find out.  A pitched tent some distance from the fire-side has been shaking for the past hour.  Someone planned ahead.

Breakfast

Breakfast

After breakfast I pass out on the bus, and with the exception of a few brief forays into the daylight, this is pretty much my day.  For some reason I’m utterly exhausted, and Sarvenaz takes great delight in taking advantage of this by snapping pictures of me sleeping.  We visit the salt lake and the sand hills in my hours of consciousnesses, but on the way back to the camels (and while I was asleep) the bus breaks down and we return far too late to tack a hump.  My camel experience will have to wait until Uzbekistan, and further down the silk road.

Iranian sleep bus

The journey home ends as the trip started, and I’ve no idea where these Iranians get their energy from.  I guess they need to take every chance they get to let their hair down.  Regardless I don’t care, as I’m in dreamland for the most part, only finally coming to as we pull back into Tehran.  I’m still perturbed about the lack of camel, but to be honest  it was just going to be led round a ring by the owner, like a donkey ride on a beach.  I want an odyssey into the sandy unknown, scimitar at my side and dark-eyed temptress Yasmina waiting for me at the oasis, to fan me with her lashes, and feed me grapes, wine, opium and Turkish delight.  100 Arabian nights,  Lawrence of Schotlandia – and an epic new facebook profile picture.  The only camel I’ve managed to get at is the one I’m smoking.

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Isfahan, funerals and FIFA 2012

Friday 06 November

So I’ve come full circle and I’m back in Isfahan.  Here I’ve returned to my very gracious, hospitable and generous host Amir, who has a passion for tuning cars and talking total shite when it comes to playing FIFA on the X-box.  With most of the sightseeing done, we basically spend hours locking horns and having a massive slagging match with it, so much so it’s a wonder it doesn’t come to blows.

And speaking of which, it reminded me of a time I was working as a residential child care worker.  To keep the bad behaviour in check, I would often accompany one of the boys to have a game of FIFA.  To be honest it was pretty much all I ever did.  And being the dominating force I was on that game (rarely was I bettered) and having a viciously unscrupulous competitive streak in me, I’d be damned if I was letting any of these pip-squeaks win.  Consequently this nearly got me the hiding of my life when I banged in a 5th goal against a particularly aggressive Irish teen, whose background was bare knuckle boxing.  Thankfully for me he decided to smash the games room up instead.

Anyway Amir and I have been going at it for days and hours on end, with obviously me being the overall victor.  Obviously.  Seriously as if there was any question.  But you might wonder why I’m mashing game-pad buttons stuck in an apartment given I’ve only a limited amount of time in this beautiful country.  Well the answer is simply this: normality.  It’s the first time I’ve felt any semblance of “the real world” in many a year.  I know this.  This is familiar.  This is safe.  This was my youth – or parts of it at least – shutting out the world and getting lost in the escapism of a video game.  For a brief moment, I’m 15 again, my clean washing is ironed and folded in the drawers, and my dinner is on the table.  Which I was always late for – because I was playing FIFA.

Oh and Yeah!  They play FIFA over here too!  They have X-boxes and everything!  Amir doesn’t go to work on a camel!  He drives a pimped up classic VW Golf.  That he practically built himself.  He calls me a “cheating fucking bastard” when I score a dodgy goal.  They’re just like us these Iranians…!

Free tea and somber reflection

Free tea and somber reflection

My arrival in Iran has coincided with a very serious Muslim festival.  Actually it’s more of a funeral, and it’s a special and specific date in their religious calendar.  For nearly two months, they honour and remember the life and death of one Imam Hussain, a revolutionary leader and Muslim martyr. They take his death very seriously in these parts (for Shia Muslims only) and cities are decorated accordingly with banners, flags and posters.  Kiosks and street stalls hand out free food and hot beverages, but it’s a somber affair, and the entire country appears to be in mourning.  Believers predominantly wear black, and towards the end of the event, Muslim men gather together to sing, chant, pound drums, pray and beat themselves with fists and whips – symbolising their devotion to and solidarity with Hussain.  I make a point to explore and investigate further, as people always fear what they don’t understand, and seeing a mass throng of black clad men and boys violently beat themselves is a sobering sight.  Meanwhile, as this takes precedence, everything else has a back seat, so I wouldn’t advise coming during this time if you’ve got urgent stuff to do.  I’m also sure someone will message me if I’ve got any of this wrong.

The Lotfollah Mosque

The Lotfollah Mosque

So in-spite of the religious fervor and escalating passions among the devout, the remaining sights in the beautiful city of Isfahan need to be witnessed.   The stunning Naqsh-e Jahan Square is a tourists wet dream, literally, with beautiful fountains the length of the enclosed maidan, and the famous Lotfollah Mosque with its incredible blue dome one of the many attractions.  The square teems with life too, from students drawing the architecture, elderly tour groups and solo wanderers, to families on a day out and horse-drawn carriages to whisk you round the striking square.  I should work for the tourist board.

Hard at work - trying not to giggle

Hard at work – trying not to giggle

Never seen dreads before - if only my kilt wasn't in Cambodia

Never seen dreads before – if only my kilt wasn’t in Cambodia

One photograph = two free pomegranates

One photograph = two free pomegranates

And above all, you feel comfortable.  You feel at home.  Safe.  Surrounded by friends you’ve not met yet.  Strolling in the warm sunshine (it’s November and it’s like July in Scotland)  I’m offered tea almost every step I take, fruit is thrust into my hands as I snap shots of vendors and street sellers, and I’m continuously asked to be included in selfies.  I am, like many other foreigners, something of a novelty.  A personal highlight comes when I’m approached by a man of advancing years who requests an impromptu street English lesson, and as class is in session, a number of other locals join in.  I feel like Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam.  Afterwards, thanking me, he offers me the pick of his enormous bag of fresh limes – something it seems they buy in their thousands.  And bollocks – because I’ve just remembered they’re still at the bottom of my bag.

Armageddon!  Panic buying fresh lime juice

Armageddon! Panic buying fresh lime juice

And so it’s more killing you with kindness.  Seriously they’re helpful to a fault as I find yet another pomegranate thrust into my palm and a stack of bread draped across my shoulder.  What’s theirs is yours and what’s yours is yours with no questions asked.  Whoever said this country was dangerous has clearly never set foot in it.

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Yazd, Chak Chak, and hitchhiking with Aussies

Sunday 01 November

Following the mixed bag of experiences in Shiraz, I turn my attentions towards Yazd, a desert town that is slap bang in the middle of the country.  So much so that you can’t actually see it on the google map because it’s covered by the ‘I’ of IRAN.  Rest assured it’s there though, and it’s another tourist magnet and part of the gringo triangle with Isfahan and Shiraz.  I was hoping for some camels.

Yazd at night

Yazd at night

I’ve been enjoying the bus rides around the country.  Not least because hitchhiking can be a serious chore, and there’s nothing better than throwing yourself on to a cheap but comfortable bus, knowing exactly when and where you’re going to arrive.  And not only do you get a very comfy seat that reclines almost horizontally, loads of leg room and space to yourself, but they kindly provide you with a tuck box.  This usually consists of a load of biscuits in varying degrees of dryness (hell on earth if you’ve got wood-mouth), a horrible sugary drink with bits in it, and a portion of fruit if you’re lucky.  But if Allah is really smiling on you, you might get a fluffy cake.  And they’re fucking delicious.

OK, OK so I feel there’s a modicum of cheating going on.  It’s been weighing on my mind for some time, but technically I’m still obeying the rules, as I will continue my hitch towards India when I eventually leave Tehran.  All I’m doing now is saving time and a lot of hassle to see as much as I can on my limited visa.  The major downside to hitchhiking is time.  You can never really know where you’re going to end up and when.  Instant adventure in a cup if you’re free, total nightmare if you’ve got a schedule to adhere to.  Unfortunately in Iran it’s the latter.  This is my excuse anyway.  And there’s an anxious tension still there too.  I don’t care what you say – you can be a rookie or a hitching black-belt, but you’ll always feel a flutter of nerves before you set out, especially since leaving Europe behind, or being off the road for a while.  “What the hell am I doing?” often crosses my mind.  Sinking into a coach seat and closing your eyes takes that all away.

Traditional desert lodging and home for a night

Traditional desert lodging and home for a night

Ironically enough, just as I’m going through a jaded phase, it is in Yazd that I meet a fellow hitcher.  Sam is an Aussie (unfortunately – but they’re alright on their own) and we’re practically cut from the same cloth – right down to our previous occupation – both residential child care workers supporting badly behaved kids.  If he wasn’t a foot taller than me and hairier than Sasquatch it would be like looking into a mirror.

Like a boss.  Seconds after sunglass clips were robbed by the wind

Like a boss. Seconds after sunglass clips were robbed by the wind

And so at his suggestion I decide to join him on a hitch out of the city to a Zoroastrian religious site, and I rediscover my zest and zeal for a free ride.  So much so that even when my expensive and extremely hard to find clip-on sunglasses fly off my face while riding in the back of a pick-up, I hardly bat an eye in the hope that I still look like a hitchhiking literary badass.  Jack Kerouac is my bitch yo.

No traffic meant lots of this arty shite

No traffic meant lots of this arty shite

The day turns into a real gem.  Sam and I get on like a house on fire while hitching and hiking out into the middle of nowhere to the famous pilgrimage site of Chak-Chak.  With little or no traffic on the road, we’re trekking a fair bit, but it is here out of earshot and away from the prying eyes of the establishment that we can vent some serious spleen about religious authoritarianism.  The air turned blue I can tell you, but at the end of it there was a solidarity, and the bond of two men who at that moment would murder for a beer and a blow job.

Not with each other of course…with…y’know…a women…and stuff.  You know what I mean.

Chak Chak.  Get out and walk

Chak Chak. Get out and walk

Anyway I digress.  Chak-Chak is an ancient Zoroastrian pilgrimage site.  For those not in the know (formerly like myself) Zoroastrianism is a pre-Islam/Christian religion thought to be one of the oldest monotheistic in the world, still with around 2 million followers mostly located in Iran and India.  Yet another blatantly obvious reason why all of this crap is made up by man, is the simple fact that Christianity and Islam “borrowed” bits they took a fancy to from Zoroastrianism. One mans fictional deity cherry-picking from another mans fictional deity.   To me it absolutely beggars belief when you have a literal, physical paper trail like a car owners MOT log leading all the way back to when some nut first created this superstitious nonsense.  Each to their own I suppose.  I’ve been doing well not to get dragged into the debate with a blog post, but I feel that time is at an end.  So along with a rant about couch-surfing I’ve got a rant about religion coming up too.  I’m not doing myself any favours.

Burning for...a long, long time...

Burning for…a long, long time…

Tradition has it that pilgrims, at the first sight of the fire temple,(where the flame has been burning constantly for thousands of years apparently) must stop and continue their journey on foot.  This is no mean feat since you can see the thing from a good distance away, and with barely a sinner visiting at the same time as us, Sam and I make our own 7 Km pilgrimage back to the main road.  To be honest if I was approaching this place in a car I’d just keep my eyes closed until the front door.

Sam foolishly attempting to flag down motorists on the the highway.  If I saw a six foot long-haired Aussie running at me I wouldn't stop either

Sam foolishly attempting to flag down motorists on the the highway. If I saw a six foot long-haired Aussie running at me I wouldn’t stop either

One tour group (three tall European looking dudes and a short girl) clearly haven’t had any spirit of goodwill rub off on them at the holy shrine, as they speed past the two of us hobbling up the road in the same direction.  A lift to the main highway was the least they could do, but I can imagine one naysayer aboard complaining that we didn’t pay a bean.  And quite rightly so.  I’d feel ripped off too if I’d paid 200 bucks to do what we just did for nothing.  Blisters or no blisters.

Shhhhhhhhh!

Shhhhhhhhh!

Not content with my pilgrimage, I also paid a visit to the “towers of silence”, another one of these Zoro-thingy sights.  I heard about this location from my bible; Atlas Obscura.  Apparently it was a place they used to take the dead to be “decontaminated” before their final resting place.  According to their traditions, once someone dies, your body can be entered by demons, and the only way to be purified was to be left to the elements at the top of the towers.  Only when the bone was bleached and fleshed removed by carrion could they be buried.  Bodies were being discovered here until very recently, but the tradition is now illegal – for obvious reasons.  Stacking your dead loved one outside and waiting for their flesh to be eaten isn’t my idea of respect.  Still – this is my kinda tourism.

Into Mordor

Into Mordor

In the end I didn’t get to see much of Yazd itself, save for wandering around at night.  But it certainly looked like a charming little town, with an old-world street maze feel to it that people would love to get lost in.  Following yet another astounding kebab and rice dinner, (i have been crapping like a king – but unsure if the position at pooping or the sustenance is responsible) Sam and I go our separate ways on differing night buses.  I hope we meet again somewhere around the world to once again compare our hitch stories, tips, tricks, trials and tribulations, not because I enjoyed his company, but because the sneaky Aussie bastard owes me half the cab fare.

Tatooine

Tatooine

My own horseless coach whisks me back to Isfahan, for the return circuit to the capital.  In the next few days I find out if Iran is going to allow me to stay a little longer, and then I can begin the nightmare Turkmenistan/Uzbekistan visa process which takes so long, you might find my bones in the desert clinging to a 3.5 x 4.5 cm passport photograph.  At least I’ll have lost some weight.

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