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Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Salam Hoshkele

The reason I’ve always loved overland journeys is that I can see how the cultures evolve between my home and the final destination. At the end of a big trip I find myself in a totally alien environment but I understand the connection between it and my own. Ideas, food, social mores, courting rituals, physiognomy, clothing...

In the south of Iran people already look a little more Pakistanis, and I’ve been eating somosas and curry. I can begin to see how the transition will look.

It’s also a fact of overlanding journeys that people will always tell you that the next place is very dangerous. Usually it isn’t and when you get to it people tell you that where you’ve just come from is very dangerous. The key to a safe trip is knowing when to ignore uninformed warnings and when to heed experienced voices. In practice you can only really do this with hindsight. I met some bikers who came through Pakistan on their way to Europe who told me a little about the route and reassured me that it didn’t feel unsafe.

Apparently there are police checkpoints every 30-40km, you are given an escort, and when it gets dark you stop at the nearest checkpoint. The journey to Quetta is 600km and can be done in a day (on a motorbike maybe, but not in my bus). I’ve also met a Dutch couple travelling in a campervan with their young baby that I’d like to convoy with and hopefully our timetable will coincide

Yazd is a desert town with an adobe medina. It’s even more religious than Esfehan, in that religious laws are more strictly enforced. It’s cute but not stunning, with a few lovely desert paragliding sites. I bounce the bus off road to one of the take off areas, remote with an endless view of the desert. It’s a low ridge that supports soaring. I fly a little, practice kitting in smooth 20km/h winds and as the wind veers round to the side, the 15 or so other pilots pack their wings, crank up the car stereos and invite me to dance to Iranian rap, play on their quad bikes, drink homemade whiskey and smoke Afghan hash as the sun sets.

I camp the night at the spot judging the danger warnings to be a product of ignorance. The next morning 40 police officers arrive as I am having breakfast. They have come to practice paragliding too but without the booze, weed or music. They give me some water and more wood for my fire and also tell me it’s dangerous here. They make it clear they don’t want me to stay a second night.

In town I meet a couple or Tehrani lawyers here for a weekend city break. They are quite surprised at how backwards Yazd is compared to Tehran, in terms of architecture and the way religious laws are enforced.

Perhaps the strictness is the reason I’m getting less lingering looks from women. The Eshveh subtle but unmistakable extended eye contact and discrete Mona Lisa smiles I was being shot all the time in the north have dried up. Instead I am getting a different type of attention. As we pass the city prison a “tour guide” showing me the way to the paragliding sites tells me he’s been in there once. “For pumping” He hammers his chest with his fist.

“I thought it was only the women who got in trouble for pumping.”

“Not with woman, with man. I not gay, but maybe ACDC. Iran gay different from Europe gay. In Iran many men from 16 to marriage are temporary gay. If can’t get woman, then man is OK.”

Dinner Jacket has decreed there are no gays in Iran. Presumably he’s been around and asked everyone? So I’m more surprised by this guys openness than by his admission. It’s part of a fumbled come-on which thankfully goes no further. Iranian men are very tactile with each other and I felt very comfortable with the demonstrative warmth, but after this encounter in which the guide also told me about initiation rapes, sadly the cliché of the frustrated Arab’s conquest over the naive European man is feeding my homophobic paranoia, and I’m feeling less at ease with the everyday physical contact.

A pilot I’m flying with gets a call that his mother has been arrested. She’s a prominent lawyer campaigning for women’s rights, such as the outlawing of Honour Killings, so a father who kills his unmarried daughter because she is gets pregnant would face some criminal punishment. Or the banning of lashes for unmarried women caught having sex. They use electrical cable and horse whips.

The arrest happened on the first day of a long weekend so the family have to wait till the court opens in 3 days to find out why she’s been arrested and where she’s being held. The pilot expects she will be held for a month or so and that the intention is purely to intimidate her because of her work.

In Tehran the planned student demo has turned violent and there is no mention of there even being a demonstration in the Iranian news and I learn about it by text message from Europe. I fail to get to a satellite dish to follow events on BBC Persia so that’s all I know.

I wish I’d gone back to the capital to take some pictures, but the reaction of genuine fear from my hosts in Tehran when I mooted the idea was far more effective than telling me it would be dangerous. I have no photos of one of the most significant moments in global current affairs, but equally I am not being horse whipped in an Iranian prison.

The cold starts are getting harder even when the weather is not that cold, and I’ve finally decided to have the injectors serviced. They could have done with it before I left the UK and sure enough all 4 are working like water pistols spraying a stream of fuel rather than like atomisers injecting a combustible cloud. If the fuel doesn’t come out as a spray it doesn’t ignite properly. This makes the engine hard to start when cold and it churns out un-burnt hydrocarbons in the form of plumes of white smoke. New injector needles which are on their way from Tehran should also make the engine more powerful and more fuel efficient, and at last the journey will stop being dictated by the need for warmth to start the engine. Perhaps I can extend my visa again and stay another month in Iran. With a wood burning stove in the bus I could even head up into the mountains towards Persepolis and Shiraz before backtracking towards Pakistan.

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