By sunset I arrived to a slaughterhouse. I thought it would be a village but I was wrong. I should have guessed that something wasn’t right as there was no mosque on Google maps. But in Iran even an evening that starts in a slaughterhouse, ends up in a house of some kind people.
What can one do in Iran with an unexpected guest? Take them for a visit to other people’s home of course. At Fateme and her husband’s home I spend only the time needed for the obligatory tea and fruit refreshment. Then we go to pay a visit to her or his brother or sister and there’s another tea and fruit ritual. In the meantime other members of the family keep coming, carrying children in one hand and packages of sweets in the other. I shake hands with the women and answer questions of he the curious men. After a while the formal hospitality of the Iranians loosens up and changes into a swirl of family life. The women go to the kitchen, the men light the grill and the children play loudly in another room. A plastic tablecloth is rolled out on the carpet and filled with delicious food. In this country of strict prohibition water is served in elegantly cooled bottles of Russian vodka. In Iran nobody wastes an occasion to organize something that in our world would be called a feast and here is only a slightly more festive dinner.
Some things should be experienced in a right way. Caravanserais used to serve as a safe harbor amids the ocean of sand to weary wanderers. So when I arrive to Kharanaq after the whole day of cycling through the desert and it turns out that I would sleep in a caravanserai, I feel as if I stepped back in time. I enter a courtyard with a fountain through a huge wooden gate and settle down in one of the rooms in a wing of the building. Next to the caravanserai there are ruins of an old oasis. I walk through the labyrinth of partly collapsed narrow streets and alleys and watch the lunar landscape in warm light of the evening sun from the roof of the mosque. And I am absolutely certain that for moments like this it’s worth to pedal for 7000 km.
When I enter the house, Mahboubeh’s father in law smokes opium. He heats up a dark substance over a gas stove and smokes the fumes through a wooden pipe. He says that he’s got a cold and opium helps him. In the living room around him there’s the whole family gathered for a funeral including a doctor from Teheran and some children. I’m explained that cultivation of these nowadays forbidden plants, was once popular and encouraged by the British.
I’m obsessed with the idea of meeting wild camels. Today I cycle in the middle of the desert and camel road signs stand here very often. I say to myself: ‘Today or never’ but the only thing I see are dead bodies of three camels who died in car accidents.
In Tabas I don’t have the Internet that I urgently need to proceed for next visas so I wander through the town until people in a logistics office let me use their wi-fi. I sit on an elegant leather armchair covered with a plastic overlay in which it was bought. These overlays are everywhere: in offices, in resturants, on car seats. Evidently Iranians like when things are forever ‘new’.
In Tabas I also go to exchange money. I go to a bank with a banner in English but two clerks scribbling lazily in their papers seem surprised when I ask to change dollars to rials. They look perplexed at each other and ask me if I know current rate. Now I am perplexed. We end up establishing the rate by bargaining.
Zahra, daughter of Mr and Mrs X, does her homework. She’s 17 and her room is covered with photos of a handsome guy. It turns out he’s her husband. They’ve been married for a year but she will stay with her parents until she finishes high school. I’m not sure if they live here together. She lets me stay in her bedroom and goes to her husband’s family house for the night.
Zahra and her mother also explain me about their family. When they start talking about her brother, I can’t understand his story so Zahra brings her English schoolbook and reads out the word ‘martyr’. Then I understand he must be a fallen soldier. In the Iranian schoolbook for English there are expressions like: ‘to read poems of Hafez’, ‘Islamic revolution anniversary’, ‘dates’, ‘to watch military parades’, ‘to commemorate nuclear energy martyrs’ or ‘to recite Quran surahs’. All the books start with an invocation ‘In the name of Allah’ and with photos of the leaders of the country.
It rains at night and some apparently dry bushes bloom with tiny pink flowers. I feel the smell of wet soil and hear birds singing. During the day it’s warm enough to take off my jacket and let the spring sun warm me up.
For the night I arrive to a village which isn’t even signed on the map. There’s the smell of goats, sheep and camels kept in homesteads. I’m sent to sleep in the mosque and walk there escorted by a group of children but soon a woman comes and invites me home. I meet only the female part of the family, no man ever shows up. A neighbor comes to take some photos of me. I bet she has never met a foreigner. In the evening one of the sisters puts henna on her hair but I can’t see the results as in the morning, when I depart, she still has got a helmet of dried smudge on her head.
Sometimes a miracle happens and there’s tailwind. And when you cycle downhill for most of the day, it can surely be called good cycling. I run with 40km/h and the only colours I see are the yellow of the sand and the dark blue of heavy clouds on the sky. It had to rain heavily here because after a while the brown appears. Instead of the sand, on both sides of the road, there’s an ocean of mud. No more amber grains, just this dark, sinister and sucking clay. Formerly dry riverbeds are now full with rapid, muddy water. Funnily enough there are no plants growing here.
On the crossroad before Bardeskan I’m stopped by the police. No, not because I ride too fast. They stop me and ask for my passport but this time the result is unusual. After long phone arrangements the policeman from the checkpoint decides that I should cycle to the next town followed by a police car and spend the night in a hotel there. I set off and a car drags behind me for 10km and then disappears. I hope they got bored but then another one arrives and takes care of me. I explain that I won’t be able to arrive to the city as I’m still 30km away and it’s getting dark but they won’t take that for an answer. They stop a pickup and load me with my bicycle on in. 5km before Bardeskan I get off and the third police car takes over me. He guides me through the town causing traffic jam on its narrow streets. We only say goodbye to each other when the policeman makes sure I’m checked in a hotel. Now I have to change my route for tomorrow because there was no Bardeskan in my plans. The police in this country is as helpful as it can be obtrusive. Sometimes in their care for a foreigner they do me a disservice.
In Kashmar I sleep in a very comfortable teachers’ house. In the evening somebody knocks on the door so I go to open it. As I pull the handle and start opening the door I live a moment of panic thinking: ‘Oh God, my hair isn’t covered!’ One gets used to everything.
At the petrol station I get a packet of sugar in form of lollipops because the shop owner appreciates my ability to answer his simple questions in Farsi. Then I climb the mountains although I have already forgotten what it’s like to cycle uphill. In the valley up in the mountains spring fights with winter. The fields are green but there’s still snow on the slopes of the hills. On the other side of the pass the whole countryside is white again. My hands freeze and I already miss sandy landscapes.