On Journey Part Four

tehran – Mashad – Afghan border

This journey was even worse than the train in Yugoslavia. The bus was packed to bursting with families with half a dozen noisy children each and packets of food, accompanied by goats tied onto the roof, chickens and a duck or two in baskets. In addition there were a small odd assortment of Western travellers including us.  A few hours into the journey and the constant loud Middle Eastern music was giving me a headache. It all sounded the same. On top of that was the noise of the people talking (or rather shouting) at one another – even if they were sitting side by side. Were all these folk deaf?  The children ran around the bus as if it were a playground, pushing and shoving each other and yelling and fighting and screaming. Then there was the noise and smell of the old diesel engine and the sound of our driver crunching his way through the gears as we wound our way up the mountains and down again. In addition to the noise is the smell. Stale sweaty bodies, curry spices, decaying food and animal shit. I tried hard to concentrate on staring out of the grimy window, hoping to take my mind off my personal discomfort. And forget toilet breaks. It appears that only the men in this country need to go to the toilet as we never stopped at anything like a service station and I never saw a solitary woman crawl into the stunted shrubbery along the way as I was forced into doing. It made me wonder what they had underneath the voluminous black garments. (I paid severely for this journey as it resulted in damaged kidneys that I suffered with for a number of years).

Finally, almost 24 hours later we pulled up at Mashhad where we met up with Graham and Diane – a Scots couple whom we had bumped into at the Afghanistan Embassy. They had travelled to the border in a more luxurious coach and had no idea of our suffering. OK, I shouldn’t really complain given that this journey was “free” but I did. I was realising that Jon was a bit of a tight-arse.

We all caught the 2 p.m. bus to the border crossing, arriving at six thirty only to discover that the border had closed at six. We had to sleep in a huge empty warehouse along with the rest of the bus passengers including an Australian couple carrying a very large Persian carpet between them. I’d love to know if they managed to get it home, but at least they had the most comfortable and luxurious mattress for the night.

The rest of us were on dusty concrete.

Early the following morning we caught a bus to the border .

The story about that experience can be found here.

On Journey: Part Three


My first sighting in Tehran was one of sheer astonishment. A row of red double-decker London buses parked outside the railway station was not what I expected to see. We were so filthy and tired that all we wanted to do was find a room and collapse. We found one directly across the road from the station and dropped with exhaustion. Cockroaches? Bed bugs? We were too damn tired to even care.

The next day I took the opportunity to do some washing which turned out to be a big mistake. When I went outside to go to the shops wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt I was grabbed by a man in uniform (police? military?) and yelled at. More or less pushing me back into the hotel we were staying in. Apparently it was the month of Ramadan and by bearing my arms I was being sinful. I knew not to show too much skin and dress modestly, but I thought I had covered up sufficiently by wearing loose jeans and not showing any cleavage.

[Remember at this time Iran was still ruled by the Shah and not the Islamists. He was trying to modernise the country by a series of economic, social and political reforms with the proclaimed intention of transforming Iran into a global power and nationalising certain industries and granting women suffrage.]

Unfortunately there has been resistance to his regime of modernisation and the people are constantly demonstrating against him. It looks as if he too will follow his father and go into exile; the question is when? (Actually happened in 1979) I think that those who have been educated to Western standards will more than likely leave too, emigrating to Europe or the USA if they can obtain visas. I get the distinct impression that women will lose any rights they have at present, and the way some of the Muslim men stare at me is very frightening. I make sure I keep close to Jon when we finally venture out.

I am surprised to see how western the young women of the city dress. Beneath the Chadors that they used to cover themselves they openly wear mini-skirts and tight tops and full make-up. The older women however are completely covered with only their eyes showing.

We wandered around the market place and along the two main streets in Tehran agog at the wonderful jewellery stores, the aquamarine and turquoise stones, the Persian carpets (not less than 500 knots per inch are worth buying) and the brass-ware. The city is a bizarre mixture of modern office blocks and apartments alongside rabbit warren bazaars and markets, along with wonderful scents of spices and the jewel-like colours of saffron and chilli and cardamom.

Jon at this point was becoming very irritating. He was determined not to get his hair cut in order to enter Afghanistan and I was equally determined not to use the Pakistan route. Because of this we struggled to secure tickets on any of the buses heading for the border and we were in danger of separating at this point. Eventually I managed to convince him that his hair would soon grow so he accepted a trim to above the collar before we went to the Afghanistan embassy for our visas and with them safely stamped into our passports we went on to enquire about transport to Afghanistan.

In one of the many travel agents we were privately asked whether we would do a deal with the manager, who was desperate to obtain foreign currency. The deal was for us to exchange an amount of local currency (rials) into US dollars for him and in return he would get us seats on the bus leaving tomorrow for Mashhad at no cost. Jon was very keen to do this, but I have to confess to being absolutely terrified of being asked to see the US currency by the border officials as the amount was stamped into our passports and of course we didn’t have it. Not on a par with drug smuggling, which I would never attempt to do, but non-the-less risky and if we had been caught we would probably be facing a prison sentence, especially as foreigners.

In the end I was glad to leave Tehran. The city had an undercurrent of turmoil and fear and the cockroaches in the filthy squat toilets were the biggest I had yet to see.

At 3 p.m we boarded the bus to Mashad, expecting to arrive at 12:30 the following afternoon. Another tiresome journey ahead.

Counting the Cost in Camels

Iranian / Afghani border @ Maschhad / Herat – November 1973

Having failed to reach the border in time (it closed at 6 pm) we found ourselves spending the night in a huge warehouse on the outskirts of Maschhad, Iran. I was amused to see an Australian couple roll out their rather large and lovely Persian carpet to sleep on. Goodness knows whether they ever managed to get it back to Oz.

Early in the morning we caught a bus to the border where we had to walk through no man’s land to the other side where we could catch an Afghan bus to Herat. It took hours to get through the border. The bored Afghani border guards were very keen to have some fun by offering to buy some of the females amongst us with anything from cash to camels!

Although in my head I knew (well hoped) that these border officials would not do anything illegal, I have to confess to being slightly worried at their comments. When half a dozen men with thick beards and black piercing eyes surround you, you begin to feel uncomfortable. When these same men are holding Kalashnikovs and sabres in sheaths at their sides you start to feel even more vulnerable and when one of them grins at you and strokes your hair with the end of his machine gun, you become decidedly jumpy. If he really fancied you for a ‘wife’ what could any of the dozen or so westerners actually do to prevent him?

Smiling inanely at the guards (I did not wish to offend) I handed over my precious blue British passport to be stamped. The man behind the desk looked at me for what seemed like hours studying my face and then the photograph. I tried not to feel embarrassed, but could feel the heat rising from my cheeks. He spoke aside to his colleagues who also looked at me and grinned fiercely. I have no idea what they were saying, but I knew I was blushing. Suddenly the main guy pointed at me and said,

Thirty five camels

his face breaking into a huge grin showing black and broken teeth amongst the mass of facial hair. Was he really suggesting that my travelling friend sold me in exchange for nasty, smelly, spitting camels?

My friend coughed nervously. He shook his head before glancing at me to gauge my reaction. I frowned – was I being undersold? Was he even serious?

Fifty camels then, a very good deal

I raised my eyebrows. How far was he prepared to go? The guard closest to me stroked my hair once again, grinning mindlessly and I was beginning to wish I had covered it as it seemed to be attracting too much attention. I was definitely not keen on this machine gun at my temple.

Eventually sensing my discomfort the main man stamped and handed me my passport back. Still grinning he asked my companion if he would accept the fifty camels. Uncertain of giving the right answer and not wanting to cause offence to me or the guards, he kept his gaze on the floor and muttered that he really didn’t need any camels. I held my tongue even though I was starting to feel quite annoyed. Eventually, roaring with laughter at our embarrassment, the guard shook his head and beckoned us to leave the room which we did in haste.

To this day I still wonder whether fifty camels was an insult or an honour.