Monday, March 22, 2004

Into the Mountains beyond Tafresh

We hit the road by 0715h, pick up Faraj, and head south on a six lane divided highway toward Qom. The air is a thick choking soup. Most cars on the road (usually Paykans) are filled with families, six to a car. Many hitchhikers are on the side of the road, offering to pay a negotiated sum for a ride.

Sitting in the front seat of the car, with a three-hour drive in front of me, this is my first opportunity to record in my journal as life speeds by.

We keep up with the traffic, speeding down the highway. In a short distance we pass a roll over accident, and then a vehicle on fire, its owner desperately trying to douse the flames. A child is pulled back from running onto the highway. Cars refuse to pick a lane; instead they seem to try to be in all lanes at once. Fortunately there are no transport trucks on the road, as this is Narooz, the Iranian New Year, a two-week holiday period. The only other vehicles are buses, which vary from brand new yellow Volvos to ancient Fiats and old rounded Mercedes 302s. Families are picnicking on the side of the dusty road.

Approaching Qom, we pass a large salt lake on the left. The pavement is rough. It is a cloudless day, yet a brown haze is entrenched across the basin. I find my body in a state of heightened alert, as a vehicle suddenly appears within a couple of inches of our car on my side, temporarly creating a fourth lane of traffic.

I can see snow capped peaks in the distance.

Faraj is feeding us oranges from the back seat. The traffic remains thick with vehicles dodging and weaving. We are passing the city of Qom on the ring road. So many of the factories are ringed with high fences topped with barbed wire. Often there are also armed guards stationed in turrets high above the fences. Open fires create ugly visible pollution. Dump trucks rumble along the paved shoulder while we speed by at 130 kph. I view the occasional patch of green, or a tree, surrounded by vast areas of sand and rock.

Traffic speeds up and slows down in a random fashion. You can never assume anything about what the other driver will do. A car wanders into our lane, and then slows down. A bus straddles two lanes. A pick up truck wanders into the fast lane for a slow pass without warning. Dozens of sheep are visible on the side of the unfenced highway. We are heading west out of Qom, into the higher elevations. We pass a roadside pomegranate stand. The stacks of fruit present a remarkable deep red colour.

We are now within 25 kms of Tafresh and climbing higher. The snow of the mountain appears to be travelling down to greet us. The road winds its way up, the twists and turns becoming tighter as we climb. The soil is often imbued with a green hue akin to the colour of a tarnished copper rooftop. We have reached the summit of our climb, and are now descending into Tafresh. Before entering the town, however, we are stopped at a police checkpoint. One officer with a holstered pistol motions us to the side of the road. He inspects the trunk and the back seat. Although I have my passport ready, I am not asked to produce it.

We enter Tafresh, a tired, dirty, broken town. What I see are so many crumbling walls, piles of rubble, and broken pavement. Most women here but not all, wear the traditional chador.

Leaving Tafresh, we head east into the mountains, climbing up a twisting road. A cluster of modern houses appears on the left. They have been built by the sons of former villagers who have returned from Tehran after making their fortune. The paved road we are travelling on was constructed in the past ten years through the combined efforts of the villagers and the government. The former donkey trail can be seen below. This road traverses difficult terrain. There are frequent signs of minor rockslides. After a long climb we descend briefly and enter the village of Naghoosan. Suddenly the car is brought to a halt with Masoud exclaiming, “There is my aunt!” Brief kisses, then we drive on for a hundred meters, and turn left down a narrowing stone wall sided alley, past a donkey, until the car can physically go no further.

I do not know what to expect in the village itself, although I have heard much about it. The previous week some members of Masoud’s family had joked about whether or not I should be “allowed” to go to the village, perhaps fearing that I may find it too overwhelmingly rustic. Ultimately, nothing could be farther from the truth, as I was soon to discover. Most of the structures in this village, as in most of rural Iran that I have seen, are constructed out of yellow sand coloured brick or spread compound. This is just like so many of us in the west see on our television screens whenever Middle East villages are shown. Up close, though, touching it, I feel how weathered and impermanent it is.

As we enter the home of Masoud’s relatives, I am immediately impressed with the well cared for feel of the property. Yes, it is rustic. No material from Home Depot was used to construct this home. Farm animals are heard just behind the back wall of the main living quarters. But everything is cared for. Everything is in its place, and there seems to be a place for everything. This walled property is roughly twenty by thirty meters. Three buildings; a cookhouse, living quarters and a barn cover about 60% of this area. Different from most other structures in this village, they are built with stone and partially covered with whitewashed stucco.

I am soon introduced to several family members who are visiting during Narooz. Included are several young women between fifteen and thirty years of age. I am greeted by many warm, yet shy smiles. I remember the instructions given by Masoud before coming to Iran not to extend my hand to a woman, - to shake a woman’s hand only when it is offered. None is offered. Included in these introductions is Masoud’s Uncle, who immediately welcomes me in the traditional fashion with kisses on alternate cheeks three times. It is the first time I have felt the rasping of such grizzled whiskers against my face since hugging my grandfather goodnight as a child. This greeting feels very warm, open and accepting.

Soon we are offered tea, nuts and fruit as a snack, sitting on the floor with our feet under a table heated with a basin filled with hot coals. Also in this room is a partially completed rug on a loom. Masoud spends a few minutes with his Aunt working on it. Next we go into the cookhouse, a stone building with an open wood fire and nothing but a smoke hole in the roof to act as a chimney. A single bare light bulb illuminate the otherwise soot blackened space. In the middle of the room is a hole filled with hot coals for baking bread. Chicken kebabs are being prepared on the floor.

It is now time to go for a hike around the town. First we head off toward the mountains, and through some of the backfields. The air is clear and fresh, not a cloud in the sky. Vegetation is sparse. Only the men go on this walk, as the women are busy preparing the meal. It is a time for stories, and for meeting old friends, as this is the village where Masoud spent his summers as a child, visiting his grand parents. Masoud shows me where they use to live, now unfortunately a crumbling ruin.

We wind back through the village, where it is decided that I need to experience a special kind of transport, this time on a donkey. No trip to an Iranian village is complete without one! Both Masoud and I take turns coaxing the trusty steed along.

The highlight of the day, however, is yet to come. I am speaking of the meal. A traditional feast served on the floor, with chicken kebabs, fresh bread, saffron rice many fine salads, and fresh yoghurt.

No one that I meet in this village speaks English, yet everyone communicates warmth and acceptance as they greet me. As we prepare to leave I shake my head in disbelieve as Masoud explains that his Aunt is concerned that the meal is too simple. I ask him to convey that it is one of the most enjoyable, and certainly memorable meals I have ever had.

In preparing to go, I ask if we may have a group picture. Everyone gathers, some more shyly than others.

As we begin the return journey the air is clear. Unfortunately this condition does not last. In less than an hour, the thin brown line visible on the horizon grows ever larger. As we approach the city of Saveh, we are enveloped in this brown smudge. The reasons are obvious as we enter the city. Large factories are frothing black soot and old diesel buses are doing the same. Open fires can be seen on the side of the highway. North of Saveh we turn left to drive a few kilometres to a modern six-lane highway.

Cars continue to drift from lane to lane for no apparent reason. The barren landscape flashes by. A concrete tall wall separates opposing traffic. Tumbleweed, and other debris are resting against it. The highway is unfenced, yet sheep can be seen once again grazing in the distance. Snow capped peaks are barely visible to the north through the smog. I can feel the coarseness of the air as I breathe.

Just sparse tufts of vegetation appear to be all that holds soil (if it can be called that) in place. I am thankful that it is not windy. As we pass the “70 kms to Tehran” sign the traffic is very light, yet vehicles continue to struggle with the concept of maintaining a constant lane and speed, including at times the one I am in. The visible demarcation of smog rests just above the highest peak of the distant mountains.

Thick black smoke is rising from an open fire on the side of the road. A large tractor tire is in flames. This thick feather wafts upward, uncaring, and uncared for. We descend a barren valley and view Parand City to the left. There is no vegetation visible as we climb up the other side of the valley. I wonder what holds everything together. There is a reddish hue to the terrain. As we pass the “10 kms to Tehran” sign the beautiful mountains that I know to be there are totally shrouded from view by smog.

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