There’s no rest for the wicked or indeed on one’s laurels, and when you’ve only got thirty days to see the 18th largest country in the world, you’d better get your skates on. So I depart post, post-haste.
I’ve spent the previous night attempting to catch up on writing about the insane hitch from Yerevan, and intermittently attempting to plan my next route and destination. I’ve decided to head to a city called Zanjan, because I want to see some mummified salt men, and it’ll give me a base to turn North to the coast. Finding a cardboard box for my hitch sign was a breeze, but it’s a little on the small side, and I can’t quite fit all the text in. I’m often concerned speeding drivers aren’t going to be able to read it, so I opt for the obvious abbreviation of “ZAN”. I’m pretty confident people will know what I mean, until my couch surf host Behzad begins laughing uncontrollably. He informs me that the word Zan in Farsi means women. Or Wife.
So I’d be standing on the side of a road with a sign which effectively said that I wanted a woman. Apparently the chances of me getting arrested would be pretty damn high. I’ll never hate on couch surfing again.
Instead of being left to my own devices as per usual the following morning, Behzad has arranged for his English teacher to come and drive me to the city limits. This proves something of a godsend as I would have struggled without their help, and as a result I’m standing at a busy intersection before 8.30 am. This is going to be no problem.
Except it is. When I said busy, I meant chaotic. There’s no discernible lanes, people are just walking willy-nilly across the road, and the drivers just don’t give a rats ass. An Iranian army cadet does his best to help me out, but in broken English explains that if I’m not paying I’ve got no chance. A few people try to force me to the auto-bus, and I’m waiting much longer than I should be for this volume of traffic. Several local rides stop but speed off when I say “majjani” (no money). I’m lucky not to be put on my arse by a number of motorists who don’t seem to acknowledge the presence of humans. I’m spoken to aggressively by a hideously scarred man, who jabs a finger towards another highway. Someone translates into English that he can take me to a better route for my destination. I’m skeptical, but decide anywhere is better than here.
We climb into his Lada (yeah – no shit), and I’m slightly unsettled by the multitude of burn scars on his hands and arms, which I can only assume was from some fireball car wreck. We speed off the death road and up across the flyover. In less than a minute, I’m out of the vehicle and standing at the highway toll booths. Now that wasn’t so hard was it?
A toll both worker shouts across to ask me where I’m from, and then orders me to wait where I’m standing. A uniformed security official comes dangerously close. I begin to get twitchy. Why should I wait here? Are you phoning the police? I’ve got dozens of vehicles passing me by and any one of them could pick me up. It’s a direct road all the way to Zanjan and beyond. Just let me go?
He brings out a glass of hot tea. Then they’re all talking to different drivers to find out who can take me to my destination. Boy do I feel stupid. I’ve barely had a sip of the beverage when a big rig pulls over. “COME! COME! COME!” they all eagerly yell, and I’m spilling hot liquid all over myself as I charge for the truck. Shaking hands, I haul myself aboard, confirm he’s going to Zanjan, and sit back for a beautifully silent ride all the way to my destination. I pass out within minutes.
Coming to some hundred K down the road and the landscape hasn’t really changed. It’s pretty bleak out there, as the vastness of Northern Iran rolls on. The weather isn’t helping matters either. With the length and temperature of this summer, I keep having to remind myself we’re in October, and it’s certainly showing it outside from the safety of the cabin.
My phone buzzes. It’s a strange feeling being back on the grid, but as I’m already beginning to understand, incredibly useful. I actually don’t know how I’ve managed so far without. It’s my couch surf host, asking to be put onto the driver so he can find out where I’m being dropped off. Genius. Without such new fangled technological advancements, I would probably have been abandoned on a ring road, and left to walk 7 KM to some kind of town centre. My host has arranged to pick me up within minutes of me being dropped at the toll booth exit. It beggars belief how simple things could have been in past hitches.
It’s blowing a mini gale as I descend the cabin steps with my stuff in tow, and I amble over to a roadside toilet block to await my host. A number of unsavory types are hanging around. There’s an old boy with a worn suit standing in the doorway of the ladies restroom for some reason. Weathered faces peer from cab windows. The wind lifts refuse from dumpsters. Everyone’s eyes are on me.
The pace, tone and volume of the voice nearly bowls me over with the wind. Sneaking up on me is a grinning Iranian, intent on practicing his English. After every question, regardless what it is, he just says ‘thank you.’
“I’m from the UK”
“No I hitchhiked/autostop from Armenia? Yerevan?”
It continues. He’s a jolly sort of fellow who explains that it’s his sister’s wedding today. Pretty soon the whole family are crowding round me, grinning and bowing, with the women’s Chadors all threatening to blow away with every gust. His father offers me a slice of apple, and I make the mistake of letting it slip that I’m hungry. So out comes a banquet of fruit and cookies, pressed into my hand. My new friend then asks which of his nieces or sisters I like.
He’s clearly trying to marry one of them off, and then he insists I come to the wedding. Quite how I was going to fit into one of the two cars rammed with seven people each is beyond me, but it’s the thought that counts.
Then the question(s) I’ve been dreading. It was a combination of the two really. Marriage and god. Why am I not married, and why do I not believe in god? He jabs a boney finger skyward.
“DOYOULOVEMYGOD?!” He beams.
How on earth do you respond to that? My mind races for diplomacy.
“I think everyone should love what they believe in.”
This line of questioning goes on for some time, asking if I’m attempting to find his god on this journey of mine. It’s an interesting point. I’m certainly looking for something. Although not unpleasant conversation, I begin to wish my couch surf host would arrived as soon as possible, before I find myself promised to one of the family members.
My new friend scribbles his details down. And when I say details, I think the only thing he didn’t give me was his blood type. He’s offered me a place to stay in his city, to show me around and to meet his family. If ever I need or want anything I’m to give him a call. I can only admire the willingness to help strangers by the people here.
He’s delighted to have met me, and waving goodbye to his whole clan, they shoehorn themselves into the two vehicles, rest break over, and push on to the wedding. I wish him all the best, and watch as they cram into each Tardis. I’m convinced I spot three people sitting on one lap. I wonder what would have happened if I’d said I wanted to go too? Roof rack?
Alone on the concourse again and I’m trying to make myself look unapproachable. As much as I love it so far, I’m getting the impression as an outsider that should you want to be left alone, it’s not going to happen. They’re friendly to a fault. So much so that another young man is marching over and engages me in broken conversation. At the same time, my own host appears, and the two men exchange words with each other, almost to the point where a bidding war has erupted for who gets to show me the hospitality. Shaking hands, I pile my gear into my hosts car, and we rattle into the city.
I’m wedged into another death trap vehicle with my host, Roham, and two of his buddies, one of whom is another maniac behind the wheel. Thankfully enough we’re safely deposited at a cafe close to Roham’s home, and its here I can finally eat, catch up on writing, plan my next move and meet the locals.
Roham is 23, a former physical education student with a desire to study medicine. His mother owns her own shop making incredible hand-made leather goods, and indeed his house is adorned with her stunning craft work, some examples of which can be seen below. Roham himself is no stranger to the arts, and his talent is evident too with the woodwork pieces and murals he has contributed to their lovely home, not to mention his skill in playing a stunning array of beautiful musical instruments scattered throughout. His sister is currently studying medicine in Tehran, which they both obviously inherited from their father, who is a retired nurse. Their home is one of the most stunning I have ever had the pleasure staying in.
At night we meet some of his friends and hit the town. With alcohol being illegal in Iran (something I’m actually quite thankful for), young people find alternative forms of entertainment. And it’s not a bad thing. We spend a fun evening driving around the city, visiting bazaars, blasting music from the car, and chatting about our different cultures. Exhausted but wired and buzzing for my new experience, I don’t manage sleep until 5 am. Roham and his friends have offered to take me to all the places I want to go, and I get the impression that if they had the time, any Iranian would simply drive me round the whole country. Day two, and I’m still wanting for nothing.