Tuesday, April 18, 2006

ARRIVAL TO THE CASPIAN SEA: CAVIAR AND THE FOOTPRINTS OF GENGHIS KHAN.


Notice: to read the full story, have a look at my book “Vagabonding in the Axis of Evil – By thumb in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan”. Clic here to learn more. Order a copy and keep me on the road!


“Oh! You have magic hair!” – concluded a man at one of the tiny towns Steven and I crossed in our way from the Dasht-e-Kavir Desert to the Caspian Sea. His eyes couldn’t explain how my new dreadlock could be brown in the root and then change to blonde without any transition. Well, the dreadlock alone was out of the world for the man. He pointed me the sink once and again, and insisted I could borrow some soap from him. Better not to attempt explaining that the dreadlock was the present of Alba, a Spanish friend who had too many and decided to lend me some. Steven didn’t have more success in trying to explain the villagers that his boots –which we must agree had more cordons than a corset- where more useful than the sleepers they wanted to present him.








The way from Damghan to the Caspian had been breathtaking. The passage from a dry region as the Dasht-e-Kavir desert to the humid Caspian strip can be told from the road as the landscape unfolds. Stone displaces mud brick as building material, slopes become forested. Camels hide to give way to wetlands, green forests and flowers… That said, the first part of the road was desolate and we got stuck in the middle of nowhere, happily near an abandoned stone hut that sheltered us for the night. Two guys in a motorcycle gave us some cheese and bread and that was our dinner, together with the emergency chocolate Steven always keeps in his backpack.


Our aim in the Caspian was as simple as basing ourselves in Bandar-e-Torkman (literally, the Port of the Turks) and somehow end onboard of a caviar fishing vessel. Caviar is one of Iran’s more profitable exports (680 dollars a kilo). As always, our aims are shameless excuses, mere scaffolding we made up as we go so as to laugh at ourselves. A standard absurdity is set, and then real events area measured accordingly. That reminds me that Juan, Eze and me never actually launched an assault on the park’s carrousel back in year 2002 (we contented ourselves with organizing hitchhiking competitions).



Again, no track of the fishing ships (we hit the wrong season). Once in Bandar-e-Torkman, however, it was clear that the ethnic tensions between the Turkmen minorities (we are 25 km away from the Republic of Turkmenistan) was interesting enough to let us forget the ships. Since Iran nationalized the caviar industry in the seafront, local fishermen try their luck in the river. Since caviar ships were not an option, we shifted our hopes to catching a ride in a cargo ship to any other port. We visited one of harbor’s bosses who explained us different problems related to the level of the water were affecting the port’s capacity to export. But the conversation leaded us nowhere close to there.




Strolling around the somewhat grey harbor we even met an artist who proclaimed some sort of pan-Turkism, a return to the old Turkestan which extended from the Mongolian steppes to the Aegean Sea. Turkey, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan are fragments of that long since smashed china pot, but our friend continues to fill his canvas with the geometric jaws and warring grinds of Mongol like warriors. Mr. Genghis Khan is in a bad mood today…





In the street, the houses with dented metallic (Russian influence) and the colorful garments of women grant the town a strong character that contrasts greatly with the black chadors found elsewhere. Most people speak a variant of Turkish rather than the Farsi they learn in school. As in Damghan, we observe a Central Asian feel reflected in the faces of locals.



Before going on, we decided to visit the island of Ashur Adeh, just a few miles off shore. We had no specific reasons for that detour. It just sounded fun to visit an island in Iran. The mere sight of two modern ships of the Iranian Coastguards seemed a bit bizarre, since we rather mistakenly take Iran as a camel-and-desert country. We crossed the scant distance in a small powerboat whose captain charged us a dollar each, but was kind enough to invite us to his house on the island. The island itself was a rather gloomy place, a once touristic spot abandoned for some reason. Here and there you could see traces of now derelict restaurant that had seen better days, sunk ships and weathered houses.
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As Iranian law deterred us from accompanying our last lunch with a real beer, we had to satisfy our genetic program with two malt ones. If one concentrates in the dark crystal and the gothic letters in the label, placebo effect takes place and one starts behaving as a drunk. Until the eyes make focus on the “0,0%” that the manufacturer claims proudly. Before taking a bus to Teherán, where he would catch a plane back to The Netherlands, Steven promised we would travel together next time my trip would face some challenge. He seemed particularly happy to envisage a winter in Siberia. And I started my way to Afghanistan via Mashhad.
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Mashhad resulted to be 6 cars, a pick up, a truck and a Honda 125 away from Gorgan, where we had drank our malt beers, and where I stayed overnight in the waiting room of a hospital. A 564 km long trip trough a semi deserted fully boring valley where the only mention is deserved by a driver that pointed to his fingerless hand and exclaimed: “Saddam!” Another ex soldier. Paradoxically Mashhad owes its status as Iran’s second city to the Iran-Iraq war, when the Iranians from near the bombarded regions in the South West migrated en-mass to Mashhad, which is as far as they could go without leaving Iran.


More significantly, Mashhad houses the Shrine of Imam Hussein, Shiite Muslims revered figure, which I gave a flat miss in order to have more time to navigate maps of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan with Mohammed, my local Hospitality Club contact, and Victor, a French traveler from Grenoble. Mohammed will stand in my memory as the only Iranian I met that, instead of getting discouraged by the disadvantage of being Iranian when applying for visas, he is proactively planning a round the world bike tour. The most memorable moment in Mashhad was the exposition of my trip in the local Climbers Club. After going on for 30’ on the essence of hitch hiking, a woman stood up and asked if those “package holidays” were also available for women. Another guy furtively approached and inquired if I had any religion. After hesitating a while I admitted I had none, to what he replied: “My religion is Marx!” So my speech in Mashhad Climber’s circle was something of an absurd comedy. A day later a different comedy had its opening act: I hit the road towards Afghanistan.

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