We woke up early, drank chai in the restaurant, paid the bill and walked out of town, having decided to try hitching to Tehran. Unlike many of the small towns we had passed through in Eastern Turkey where there were always plenty of men standing around, (apparently doing nothing), and hardly any women to be seen, everyone in Maku seemed to be busy. The bakers were forming dough into flat rounds, a peak-capped policeman was strolling down the middle of the dusty, dirt street, women wearing chadors over western-style blouses and trousers were carrying water or washing clothes in a stream. A group of small children stopped their playing briefly to wave and shout at us. On the edge of the town, where the mud-walled houses petered out, a young man carrying a bag of fresh, very thin, crispy bread stopped and, without uttering a word, handed us a large piece… a small but surprising kindness from a total stranger. We ate the delicious, still warm, bread as we walked in a dry and barren landscape, the road cutting through hills of bare rock.
When a truck appeared going in our direction I put out my arm and waved. It stopped, they were going all the way to Tehran, and we had a ride. How easy was that? The truck was transporting sheep and, apart from the driver and his mate riding in the cab, there was a demented looking guy dressed in clothes totally made of crudely stitched-together patches who traveled in the back with the animals. Cackling like a lunatic, he tied our bags on top of the cab and we were off. As the truck roared eastward we managed to make some conversation with our companions, teaching each other the Farsi and English words for different things. The co-driver gave us bread and honey but they wouldn’t eat, as it was still Ramadan. A few hours later they stopped to buy an enormous, sweet melon for us, we felt rather guilty consuming in front of them but they were most insistent. The scenery had changed and we found ourselves ascending into rugged mountains on a winding road.
It was on this stretch of the road that the driver started began to take his hand off the steering wheel to caress Janette’s thigh, not openly, but every time we went through one of the many tunnels. I didn’t realise until she told me, as he was only doing it in the dark. But it went on for a long time, (there were a lot of tunnels) so, rather than make a big thing of it, we decided to get out at the next decent sized town. The truck wasn’t due to get to Tehran until the early hours of the morning and that was too many hours of darkness for my liking. Janette was imagining all kinds of dreadful things happening to us, rape, robbery, murder, who would know? They could have dumped our bodies in the middle of nowhere and no-one would have been any the wiser, just two young travelers who’d disappeared somewhere in Iran. A little after sunset the driver pulled in to a truck-stop-come-restaurant so that the three of them could have a meal, here we informed the driver that we wanted to be dropped off at Zanjan, the next large town on the map. He appeared to understand, but when we reached the town he drove straight through despite our making it obvious that we wanted him to stop. Our paranoia levels increased. The truck finally came to a halt at a gas station in the town of Takestan and we jumped from the cab demanding that our bags be handed down, which they were by crazy-animal-man in the back. At this the driver became very angry and demanded 300Rials from me but I made it clear that he wasn’t going to get it. I offered him 100, eventually reaching a bad compromise at 200Rials and, once the guy had the money in his hands, he was all smiles again and shook both our hands before driving off. I guess the only reason that they picked us up in the first place was for the money that they could screw out of us. Having a young, attractive, woman’s thigh to fondle was probably just a bonus and a reflection of how Western women were viewed by males in Iran.
Arriving after dark in a strange town in a strange country is not an ideal situation to be in and always to be avoided if at all possible. We looked around us for any sign of a hotel but everywhere was closed and shuttered. Randomly picking a direction we began to walk down the road and heard a little voice shout, “Hullo”. Out of the darkness appeared a young boy who asked us in reasonable English if we were looking for somewhere to sleep. We followed him for a short way until we arrived at an empty restaurant. Leading us through the front door, he showed us to a carpeted room with a simple curtain for a door, at the rear of the building. He said we could sleep here for 25Rials each and we agreed, it was too late to be trudging the streets looking for anything else. We ate flat bread and salty goat’s cheese in the dining room and, over the inevitable chai, we chatted with the boy, Mohammed, and his younger brother Zabi. They taught us a selection of useful words and phrases in Farsi, which I jotted down phonetically. At about 11.00pm we returned to our room to find that we were sharing it with someone else, a pocket-sized Turkish man. Mohammed and Zabi watched in wide-eyed amazement as we unrolled our sleeping bags. They’d obviously never seen one before and thought that they were wonderful. We both slept badly. The Turk, wrapped in blankets, scratched all night and in the early hours of the morning someone noisily mopped the cafe floor, singing loudly. Cheerful bastard! I could have strangled him.
When I woke up the Turkish guy had disappeared and left me with a mass of madly itching fleabites down one leg. We drank chai, paid the bill and left. As soon as we hit the street we drew the attention of a large crowd of kids, obviously not used to seeing foreigners in their town, who followed along behind and insisted on practising their English on us. We gritted our teeth and tried to ignore them, finding them incredibly irritating due, no doubt, to a lack of sleep. On reaching the outskirts a car stopped and the driver offered us a lift to Teheran but Janette was suspicious after the previous day’s experience and we refused. The same thing happened a second time, this time a car that was originally coming towards us suddenly turned round and screeched to a halt. Again we said no. The driver of the third car that stopped didn’t look so shifty and said that he would take us for 20Rials so we climbed in. Unfortunately he immediately turned the car around and headed back to town where he drove around shouting and waving to his friends. We seemed to be a major attraction in town. But now I was pissed off and bellowed at him to, ‘Stop the fucking car’. He looked quite taken aback and straight away let us out. Once again we became the Pied Pipers of Takestan with a gang of small, snotty nosed kids who followed all the way to the main highway shouting, “Hulloo, how arryoo? One, two, three, Good morning” etc. etc.
Eventually we managed to flag down an articulated lorry carrying huge logs, the two guys in the cab seemed OK but our ability to judge the character of people had been pretty suspect up to now so we were on our guard. We only traveled with them a short distance before the truck was flagged down at a police checkpoint where an almighty row broke out between the armed police and the driver. We had no idea what it was about but the cops made it plain that we couldn’t travel in the truck. Rather than leave us stranded on the side of the road they flagged down a pick-up, had a word with the driver and we climbed in. I don’t think that he was too pleased to have us foisted upon him but he drove us all the way into the gas-fume polluted centre of Teheran and gladly accepted 100Rials for his trouble. We quickly found Amir Kabir Avenue and the renowned Hotel Amir Kabir, (like the Gulhane in Istanbul it was a well-known stopping off place for travellers on the overland route). We booked in, 75Rials each for a double room with washbasin plus hot showers at the end of the corridor. The clerk at the front desk handed us a street map of Teheran which also included the addresses of all the Embassies and consulates plus, printed at the very bottom, these two adages; ‘A SMILE costs Less than Electricity and Gives MORE light’ and ‘Laziness Travels so Slowly that Poverty Soon Over Takes It’. The hotel catered for westerners, providing non-Iranian food and drink, travel information and maps, and had English speaking staff. It was a haven, a retreat from the world outside its doors and sadly, a necessity. The fantasy we had in England of immersing ourselves in different cultures depended upon our being accepted by the people in whose countries we traveled. It had quickly become apparent that in eastern Turkey and Iran we were seen by some as aliens to be ridiculed and ripped off. There was no way that we could blend in, we were too different. Everywhere we went we attracted stares, especially Janette, which, after a while, became very wearing.
We thought that, as it was still early afternoon, we would go to the Afghan Embassy and apply for visas but were told in the hotel that the Embassy was closed, today being Friday, the Moslem holy day. Instead we strolled around the streets and found ourselves in an enclosed, ancient crumbling bazaar where shafts of dusty sunlight illuminated the gloom. This was real downtown local Teheran where goods were bought and sold and where we appeared to be the only Westerners. In a strange and surreptitious transaction I bought a small piece of hash. I was a little nervous about it as Iran had a reputation of having a very tough policy on drugs, (due to pressure being exerted by the US Government, the penalty for possession of a kilo or more of cannabis was execution with no trial) but the temptation was too great. We bought two rounds of sweet bread and a couple of apples and returned to the Amir Kabir where we showered and washed our clothes. In the evening we relaxed, furtively smoked the hash and drank ice-cold Chocomilk… aah, simple pleasures!
After a good nights sleep we took advantage of the hotel restaurant and fortified ourselves with a breakfast of fried eggs, flat bread and chai. It took at least an hour to walk to the Afghan Embassy only to find a hand-scribbled note pinned to the door saying, ‘Closed until Monday’. We decided to try and get a bus to Mashad the next day and pick up our visas there.
From the Afghan Embassy we walked in ever increasing heat to the US Consulate where we hoped to pick up mail from their Poste Restante department. Disappointingly, the place had just closed for lunch and wasn’t due to open again for another hour. Rather than hang around we returned to the hotel to enquire about buses to Mashad. We managed to book on a Mehan Tours bus leaving at 8.00am, costing 300Rials each and taking around eighteen hours to cover the 600 mile journey. Taking a taxi back to the US Consulate we found ourselves confronted by an unfriendly, overweight, officious American woman who refused to even check if mail was being held for us, saying that, as we weren’t US citizens there couldn’t possibly be mail because the Poste Restante service was for US CITIZENS ONLY. Bitch! On the way back to the Amir Kabir we picked up a jar of honey, more sweet bread, apples and a melon to take with us the following day. For our evening meal we treated ourselves to egg and chips with flat-bread followed by chai and a chocolate-iced donut, a veritable feast. Back in our room we locked the door and smoked some dope. Desperate for English reading material I had found an old copy of ‘Woman’ magazine in one of the nearby shops and I partially devoured this along with most of the melon.