Bikepacking Southern Iran: Day Four

Today, I cock it up.

I’m woken at 5am by the mo’azzen and his call to prayer, a singular amplified wail filling the quiet valley with high-pitched tremor. I roll over and am snapped awake by the classic 3rd-day-of-riding thigh burn. As I pack my gear, I decide I am going to make today a half-day of riding and take the afternoon off. Giving my legs a rest and my body a proper feed, I reason, will pay off over the following days.

I scan the maps I’ve downloaded. The nearest decent-sized settlement is Firuzabad, big enough to have a university and therefore, I guess, a mosaferkhane or two; a cheap motel in which a room can usually be found for £10 or so. It’s about 40 miles away. I suspect the worst of the climbs are over and that I can knock out this distance by lunchtime. Thanking Karim, and waving goodbye to the three kids peeping shyly round the door, I make my way back to the road and set off into the dawn.

Karim had been an agricultural engineer, designing, making and installing irrigation systems for farmers in and around his village. I find myself riding alongside the results of his work. With 80 million mouths to feed, agriculture is an enormous industry. Down here in the south, winter is the growing season as the summers are simply too hot.

On previous adventures in Iran I’ve seen other pieces of the puzzle that come together to make these barren-looking lands fertile – in short, to allow Iranians to grow tomatoes in the desert. Indeed, on a journey through Iran, one can experience millennia of agricultural innovation in the space of a single day.

Up in the high mountains, passing among the most arid and lifeless of rocky slopes, you may hear a tinny, off-kilter clanking of bells on the breeze, bringing a flashback of grainy old films set in colonial-era Middle East in which scarved and weathered goatherds traipse the hillsides with their animals. Then you’ll notice that there is indeed a scarved and weathered goatherd traipsing the hillside, the herd scouring the rockscape for meagre forage in a scene that has remained unchanged for thousands of years.

As you descend, you’ll notice what look like attempts at ploughing, irregular squares of furrowed land planted with potatoes or hardy herbs. If you’re lucky, you might notice figures tilling these fields by hand, men and women together. As you move among the fields, you’ll notice shallow, hand-dug irrigation channels feeding the furrows with life-giving water. If you’re particularly eagle-eyed, you’ll spot deeper ditches diverting water from a nearby river via a meticulous network of sluice gates into the irrigation network, where a farmer will be shovelling heaps of dirt around to temporarily block and open different channels to direct the flow.

Before long, the fields will grow bigger, closer-packed, more regular in shape and size, settlements and roads more obvious among them. You’ll hear the slow put-put-put of an internal combustion engine. Peering around for an idling truck or tractor, your gaze will instead land on the flywheels and cranks of an old-fashioned diesel engine powering a water pump, making agriculture possible further from the water’s source. Closer inspection may even reveal it to have been manufactured in England – of all places! – back when the countries were friends and allies and before the British manufacturing base collapsed. Workers will be harvesting ripe produce into plastic crates stacked near a pickup truck in a vision of fast-industrialising modern agriculture.

Continued curious wanderings will unveil fields now ploughed with heavy machinery, irrigated using complex networks of plastic pipework, protected from the elements by polytunnels, and fertilised and pest-controlled using fancy new imported chemicals. And then – the pièce de résistance – you’ll hit one of the dams, perhaps even one the mega-dams (such as Leon and I found while trying to descend the Karun back in 2014), built during the recent craze for large-scale civil engineering, one of hundreds of projects designed to harness the dwindling water resources of Iran to feed its fast-growing, fast-modernising population.

Honestly, it’s impressive. Were the global economy to suffer meltdown, I have little doubt that Iran would remain standing as one of the few truly self-reliant nations of the world, while those in the West would suffer the sudden halting of the global import-export network in innumerable hard-hitting ways.

Perhaps, in a weird and counterintuitive way – and I am not at all comfortable trying to articulate this – a return to self-reliance could prove one of the few positive upshots of Brexit, a political turning point for the nation of my birth that might in other ways prove catastrophic. Perhaps, isolated from the rest of the world and hamstrung by voluntarily-instituted trade sanctions, the inhabitants of Britain would be forced to come together, pool their resources, revive long-dead institutions, and rediscover their ability to look after themselves and each other; now an island in both the geographical and economic senses. And perhaps, in a time where the dismantling of global industry seems to be a precondition for human survival, this would be a good thing – at least for one little island in the North Atlantic.

Perhaps.

Anyway, today’s cockup has nothing to do with ruminations on the economic trajectory of Iran and everything to do with assuming that Firuzabad will have a mosaferkhane. Because when I arrive in the city and start asking taxi drivers for the nearest motel, the unanimous reply is that there isn’t one.

What there is, however, is a government-run tourist hotel, the good old mid-range travellers’ favourite: Hotel Jahangardi. I roll up and ask for the price of a single room, knowing from the way the receptionist recoils from my appearance that it’ll be out of my budget, and yes: it’s 180,000 Tomans a night. That’s about £45 – a quarter of my budget for this whole trip.

Contemplating 13 hours in a tent on the side of a main road, I mutter my thanks and that I unfortunately can’t afford it, then turn to leave. It isn’t intended as a haggling ruse, but it works astonishingly well, perhaps because it’s genuine: the price immediately drops to just a hundred Tomans, more like £25, with breakfast thrown in. It’s still a massive chunk of my budget, of course. Accommodation in Iran outside the main hotspots feels disproportionately expensive. But then my legs chime in, reminding my brain that it’ll pay its dividends tomorrow and in the days that follow. Resisting the urge cultivated by years of shoestring vagabonding to never spend any money on anything, I hand over my passport and a wad of banknotes – though as I cart my belongings up to the room, I still can’t avoid the feeling that I’ve somehow cocked up.

Later, refreshed by an afternoon nap, I head out on foot. Like so much of Iran, one of the original cradles of civilization, the modern-day homogeneity of Firuzabad belies its ancient history. With origins in the Chalcolithic period, Firuzabad (originally named Gōr) can claim at least 5,000 years of inhabitation, as well as the dubious honour of being destroyed by Alexander The Great in the 4th century BC. Revived and rebuilt a few hundred years later by Ardashir I (whose ruined palace I’d explored earlier that day), Gōr was eventually renamed Firuzabad – “City of Victory” – in the 10th century AD by an emir of Fars, the province through which I’ve been riding.

The ruins of Gōr still stand on the western edge of modern-day Firuzabad, open for exploration by all. In the city centre, of course, you’re more likely to find pizzerias, ice-cream parlours, downtown parks and four-way traffic intersections than Zoroastrian fire temples. It is here that I cock up for a second time when I try in a local pharmacy to procure a bottle of medical alcohol to fuel my stove.

Though my rusting Farsi is coming back to me, I can’t find the word for ‘alcohol’ (perhaps unsurprisingly in a dry country). The giggling young women behind the counter profess not to speak a word of English, finding the presence of a random Brit hilarious. I fall back on ‘determined babbling foreigner’ mode to see what happens. Eventually one of them beckons me out of the shop and drags me down an adjoining alleyway to what I discover is a doctor’s surgery. Barging through a crowd of women and children waiting outside his door, I burst in on the doctor mid-consultation, apologising profusely to him and his bemused patient, and escaping quickly with the colloquial word for alcohol. (In case you’re wondering, it’s “alcool”. Of course.)

The cock-up is that it turns out to cost 30,000 Tomans – about £7 – for the tiniest and most pathetic little bottle out of which I’ll be lucky to get 4 or 5 brews. But I’m way too far into the process to back out now. I hand over yet more precious cash. D’oh.

Opposite the pharmacy is Valiasr Park, and at its entrance is a street food vendor. I cross the road and ask him what he’s selling. “Ash-e doogh”, he tells me – translated literally, something like ‘yoghurt soup’. Besides the vat of creamy pale-green stew is a stack of plastic bowls. I ask for a small portion.

“What’s in it?” I ask as he ladles the stew into the bowl. It looks like rice pudding with herbs in it.

“Yoghurt, kashk, rice, and wild mountain herbs. It’s a local thing,” he replies, handing it to me. I get a strong whiff of tarragon. Like most Persian stews, there’s no obscure secret behind its preparation – what you see is what you get. Also like most Persian stews, the weird-sounding combination turns out to be pretty good.

“Where are you coming from?” he asks, striking up conversation with the Farsi-speaking foreigner. Perhaps because of the wording of the question, and perhaps because I used my adoptive homeland’s passport both to enter the country and check into the hotel, I reply: “Armenia.”

“Armenia…” he ponders. “A friend of mine visited Armenia last year. He said it was a beautiful country.”

“It is,” I reply, nodding in agreement, recalling powerful visions from the year just gone.

“But how’s the weather? Isn’t it very cold right now?”

“That’s true,” I say. Friends in Yerevan have been reporting daytime temperatures approaching -20°C. “That’s also why I’m here!” I add.

We continue discussing the weather and other such small talk. Like most Iranians, he’s well aware of the Armenians. These two next-door neighbours share centuries of history as their people have befriended, invaded, assimilated, subjectified, fought and assisted each other – mostly on Persian imperial terms, as has so often been the case in Armenian history, but largely favourable to Armenians nonetheless. The result is a fully assimilated Armenian community in Iran with hundreds of years of lineage – even having permanent representation in Parliament. Iranian Armenians define and distinguish themselves through the preservation of their language, religion, certain cultural traditions, and above all a sense of Armenian ethno-nationalistic identity ranging from the moderate to the extreme – though in a brief encounter with an Iranian Armenian on the streets of Tehran or Esfahan, you’d never know the difference.

As I leave, the vendor offers his phone number in case I need any help during my time in Iran. I politely decline, telling him I’ll be fine, and start to head back to the hotel. It’s a heart-warming gesture and one of the quirks of Iranian social etiquette that resonates with some deep-seated British sense of helpful politeness to all as the way things should be – a memory of a fairy-tale homeland that probably never was.

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