Janette woke me at six the next morning. I’d slept heavily, sedated by the hash, but she’d been tossing and turning all night worried that we would oversleep and miss the bus which, if it had been left to me, we almost definitely would have. After breakfasting on sheep’s yoghurt, flat bread and a glass of milk and paying our hotel bill, we managed to arrive for the bus at 7:30. Unlike the buses we had traveled on in Turkey where Janette was the only woman, at least half of the passengers on this bus were woman, many with children. We were also not the only Europeans; there was a lanky German man, probably in his late forties, who was traveling to India. He spoke hardly any English, made no attempt at Farsi, was very awkward and made the simplest things, (like ordering chai) incredibly complicated. Everything appeared to be an ordeal for him. He looked very much out of place and we both felt quite sorry for him.
The bus left on time and edged its way through the three-lane insanity of Teheran’s traffic until we finally left behind the flat scrub-land around the city and began to climb into the Elborz Mountains to the north. We stopped at a small town called Polur where all the men disembarked and went into a café. Once the men were seated the women covered their faces and, with their children, followed, but were ushered into a room at the rear. We sat with the men and, beneath the ever-present, huge, framed photograph of His Imperial Majesty Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and his spooky-looking family, had a second breakfast of bread, butter and marmalade washed down with, of course, glasses of hot black chai. The landscape in this part of Iran was spectacular; towering, rocky mountains, brown and windswept, enveloped us as we wound our way north towards the Caspian. Following the Haraz River we came down into the lush area between the mountains and the sea. There appeared to have been recent heavy rain as many of the side-roads were thick with churned up mud and the fields were swamped. We passed orchards and tea plantations and, rather worryingly, many road accidents with vehicles totally wrecked. One, which appeared to have just recently occurred, was a bus that had rolled on to its side. All the passengers were sitting there looking shocked. Janette and I looked at each other both thinking the same thing. The bus driver’s assistant chose this moment to hand out free sweets and bottles of Coca-Cola, an obvious attempt at distracting us from what we’d just witnessed.
It was dark by 5:30pm and with the dark came the cold. And it was very cold. We stopped at about nine o’clock for an evening meal and were successful in getting the waiter to understand that we didn’t want any meat, (‘nay goosht’). We dined on plain steamed rice with unsalted butter melted into it, strong raw onion and flat bread, not particularly nourishing but at least it filled our stomachs. We were joined by three guys who told us that they were trainers in a nearby army camp. They were interested in where we came from and where we were going, all the usual stuff. When it was time for us to return to the bus they offered to pay for our meal, we politely refused but were touched by their generosity.
We rolled into Mashad at two in the morning, once again arriving at a bad time in an unfamiliar place, and it was freezing. A dodgy looking taxi driver, (we seemed to attract them) offered to take us to a hotel for 50Rials and told us that the Hotel would cost us 50Rials each. He tried to get Janette to sit next to him on the front seat but we’d been through that movie before so I sat there, with Janette on the outside. Needless to say, he kept his hands to himself. The Hotel was a pleasant surprise, the two young boys at reception showed us to our room which was clean with two beds and a washbasin, even a rug on the floor. Then we saw a notice on the wall, which said that the price of the room was 240Rials which was considerably more than we were willing to pay. I rushed downstairs and, after some intense negotiation, managed to get an agreement on 130Rials. I really did not want to have to go back out into the cold night. When I got back to the room I found that Janette had already added an extra layer of clothing in anticipation of returning to the streets. She obviously had no faith in my negotiating skills. It was past three o’clock when we finally got to bed and we slept solidly through to 8am.
We walked out of the hotel into a sharp and sunny morning intending to go directly to the Afghan Embassy to get our visas. Unfortunately this was not to be as Janette had discovered that she had lost her camera, probably on the previous day’s bus. She was very upset, not only had we taken a load of photos with it, which were on the film, but it had also been a going-away present from her parents, (who hadn’t really wanted their only daughter to go away in the first place). I didn’t help matters by my totally unreasonable irritation at this unforeseen hitch in our plans, the hassle of having to go and search for it, the absolute conviction I had that we would never see it again, plus the loss of the photographs. I waved down a taxi and we returned to the bus station where a very sympathetic man listened to our story. He somehow tracked down the exact same bus that we had traveled on from Teheran and told us to take a look. Amazingly, and to our great relief, the camera was on the floor under the seat where it had fallen. With both of our spirits now lifted and the monosyllabic acrimony of our conversation dispatched we set off along wide, tree-lined boulevards to the Afghan Embassy. We were the object of many hostile stares and had been warned to expect it in this city, the Mecca for Shi-ite Muslims. Mashad apparently translates as ‘martyrdom’.
By the time we’d found our way to the Embassy there was already a long line of travelers of all nationalities waiting in the garden. It was an hour and a half before we reached the front and were each handed a pink form to be completed in triplicate, with photographs attached. Luckily we’d had the foresight to bring plenty of duplicate passport sized photos with us, aware that we would probably need them for picking up visas. This accomplished we exited the building and joined a second line of people waiting in the garden to hand in the application forms plus passports. By 11am we had fulfilled all the Afghan bureaucratic requirements and were informed that our visas would be ready at 12:30. From talking to others who were going through the same process we discovered that Mashad’s main post office was only a short walk away. Having received no mail since we left home this was a ‘must visit’ place. I, with my innate lack of any sense of direction managed to get us lost as usual but we were soon put straight by a young Iranian guy who offered me 15US Dollars for my Levi jacket. Not quite enough for me to sell it at this point in the trip. At the post office we were surprised to find that there were three letters for us, one from Janette’s parents, one from my Dad and another from my stepmothers father, Mr Clough. It was good to hear from home but made us realise just how far away we were now. Not having eaten yet, we bought bread, sweet limes and a melon and devoured them back in the Embassy garden. As soon as we were handed our visas we went off to find a bus that would take us to Taybad near the Afghan border.
There was a bus leaving at three o’clock but a twitchy Iranian youth that we had previously run across in Teheran persuaded us not to go. He informed us that the border closed at 5pm during Ramadan and that the hotels in Taybad were really expensive in order to make as much money as possible out of those stranded there. We booked on a bus with Khava Tours that would leave at 10.00am the following morning and would take us to Islam Qu’ala, which, we were assured, was the actual border post. Our helpful friend directed us to the Mardjan Hotel on Teheran Avenue, 70Rials each with free, (but, of course, non-existent) hot shower. Well at least it was free! It was a pokey little pink-walled cell and not very clean but neither were we and we were gradually becoming less and less fussy. It was somewhere to sleep and that was really all we needed.
Having found somewhere to leave our belongings and with the rest of the day free we took off for a wander around the city. It was certainly the nicest place we’d visited in Iran with its domes of turquoise and gold and its total absence of western influence. A young man offered to show us around the Tomb of Imam Reza but we demurred expecting a possible hostile reception from the mullahs. Instead he took us to an ancient caravanserai, in use as a carpet centre, and introduced us to his brother (what a coincidence) who proceeded to show us a selection of beautiful Persian and Afghan carpets. He did his best to make a sale but there was no real pressure. Over many glasses of chai we learned about the different types of carpet including the mythical ‘flying carpet’, so named not because of any magical properties but because the dye used, a rich, dark orange, was supposedly derived from the cannabis plant. Of course this may have been simply sales patter but it was interesting and fitted in nicely with the exotic atmosphere in that ancient circular building with its balcony and arches. Here one could sit and breathe in the history of centuries, of camel trains on the Silk Road, of tradesman and merchants. We were shown how to recognise the best quality carpets by the weave and the knotting, that the value of a good hand-made carpet increased with age and that the best thing that you can do to a carpet, no matter how expensive, is to walk on it.
As early evening approached we ducked into a bakery to buy fresh bread and were invited into the back to see how the baking was done. In a white-tiled room we found four men sitting on the stone floor around a circular hole, this was the oven and obviously heated from below. They operated a kind of production line system whereby the first guy hand-rolled the prepared dough into large balls, the second stretched them out into the recognisable flat ‘nan’ shape, the third slapped them on to the inside wall of the oven, where they stuck, and the fourth guy hooked them out when ready. They were a jovial team of workers and more than pleased to have their photograph taken.
Walking back to the hotel through the, by now, brightly lit streets we met a young guy who said that he worked for the Tourist Information Service and invited us to his home for tea. We followed him through a large courtyard with trees in the centre and into a large carpeted room furnished only with a dresser, a small table and a chair with a pile of clothes on it. We conversed about various subjects over our chai (he was very keen on western music, particularly Englebert Humperdink). We appreciated his hospitality but communication between us was not great and the strain of sitting smiling in silence became a little wearing so after a short time we left and made our way back to the Hotel Mardjan. We were whisperingly offered hashish by a number of guys as we strolled back but it didn’t feel right, besides, tomorrow we would be in Afghanistan, land of the strongest dope on the planet.
The following morning we arrived an hour early at the bus station and bought apples while we waited. A group of chattering, laughing Iranian women in black chadors cracked open walnuts and shared them with us and, when their bus arrived they all smiled and waved goodbye. We left at 10:20. The bus was full and among the passengers there were seven other Europeans, two of them English, two Swiss and three French. We pulled in to a rest stop in some godforsaken dust-blown place in the middle of nowhere where we spent the last of our Rials. As we were drinking our chai and eating boiled sweets an Iranian soldier asked to inspect my wristwatch, a cheap Timex. He wanted to exchange his, far more expensive, watch, for mine. He was very insistent so I agreed. I thought he was mad but that was his problem. About an hour later he came down the bus and wanted to exchange them back again. That was fine with me. I had no idea what was going on in the guy’s head and didn’t really care… just another notch on the weirdness stick. The journey was uneventful after that and we watched out of the window as the landscape grew wilder and more barren, as if that was possible
Seven hours after leaving Mashad we arrived at the small town of Taibad where the entire load of luggage was thrown down from the roof of the bus and placed in the side compartments. A few miles down the road we stopped at the floodlit Iranian border post, contained within a ten-foot, razor-wire topped fence, very modern and built with US Dollars to aid in the fight against drug smuggling. It took around thirty minutes to get our passports checked and stamped by the armed, peak-capped, green-uniformed officials. We passed the time browsing the glass-fronted display cabinets containing examples of dope smuggling techniques that had been discovered, from petrol tanks and aluminium backpack frames to hollow sandal soles. Outside we had a bit of a hassle with an Afghan mini-bus driver who demanded money up front, in Afghanis, before he would take us across the ten miles of no-mans land and then on to Herat. The general consensus of opinion was that the 100Afghanis he was charging was too much and anyway, no one actually had any Afghanis. There was a great deal of argument but eventually an agreement was reached. We would all give him our vaccination certificates as insurance and would pay the cash as soon as we’d been to the bank at the Afghan border post. This appeared to satisfy him and, with his beaten up old mini-bus filled, he drove off into no-man’s land. This area of desert was reputed to be bandit and smuggler territory and, even though we didn’t see another living thing, not even a bird, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of excitement at crossing it.