Nesfe Jahan, pt 50

15 November 2010

Next stop : Qazvin. If you look it up, it will probably tell you it was a captial of the Safavid monarchy for a blink of an eye, and a couple of sites. But this is not why you go to Qazvin. You go there to visit the Alborz mountains, at it’s most interesting and stunning. Which is exactly what I do. I’m going to the Valley of the Assassins ™.

But, of course, there are logistics to think about. When I leave Tabriz in the morning, I make sure to tell the driver I’m going to Qazvin. Not Teheran, the end stop of this bus. I tell the ticket salesman. I tell the seatchecker. I tell the guy sitting next to me. I tell everyone who makes eyecontact with me. Qazvin, Qazvin, Qazvin. When I wake up, it’s a bit later than it should be. I ask the driver where Qazvin is, and he points behind him. Sigh. I hop off at the next truck stop, and pay 4 euros for 40 minutes of driving a private cab back.

But luck is on my side. My host, S, is incredibly kind. And also a mountaineer. As are all his friends. Pretty much perfect for my plans. When I enter his house, his mother greets me enthousiastically, and extends her hand warmly. She wears no scarf. Sattelite tv, illegal in this country, is showing persian language news about the middle east. There’s a bottle of Absolut in the closet. And I’m treated like a king.

In the evening, we meet up with S’s friend H. H is his mentor, a died in the wool mountaineer with a passion. When he hears I want to spend a couple of days in the valley, and not just take charter a taxi for a day, he becomes deferrential. “I think it’s not a good idea, it’s dangerous” “Ok, but why?” “It’s cold, small villages” “I understand H, but what exactly is the danger? The cold is no problem, I have good gear” “It’s the villagers” “But what about them? Are they going to kidnap me?” “No no, you just have to be very careful” “But why???? What’s dangerous about them” “Just, watch your money. Tell me about what you did on your trip before.”

I knew what was happening, they just wanted to make sure what I was doing before they let me play without training weels. Partly because they are experienced in dangerous situatios, and they’re used to judging who to take and who not. And partly because they’re Iranian. Being a guest is a fully passive experience. But more on that later. I spot a book that is very familiar to me on his desk. I open it, and quickly find what I’m looking for.

“Here, H. I really like this passage”.

He reads attentively for a minute or so, and then he looks at me, eyes glintstering, head nodding slowly.

“Yes! Yeesss!”

Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyaat. It opens doors here. So does seeing a concert of Shajaranian.

I tell H briefly about my trip until now, the gear I have, and my plans for transport and sleeping in the valley. And it’s on. He opens a couple of maps, frantically scribbling the latin names of some tiny villages. Ghazor Khan, with Alamout Castle. Home of Hassan al Shabbas. And adding a little dot of own, Pidgibon. And, when he talks about Pidgibon, he is again deferential. Hard to get there. No cars go at this time of a year. Very steep road. Very cold. But I know this game. If it was not worth it, he wouldn’t be talking about it. When somebody keeps talking about something in the negative, but doesn’t drop the topic, it’s probably going to be something very special. And, at that moment, I know I’m going to Pidgebon.

The next day, it takes about 4 hours for the shared taxi to climb up the mountains, driving dramatically through the clouds, and then descending again into the valley. Before we even make it to the end though, the cab runs out of gas and me and the other passangers are forced to hitch our way out. No discount though. We make it to Moallem Khelaye easily, and there I spend about 2 hours waiting for the bus to leave for Ghazor Khan. The 3 other passangers are over 50, wearing shabby woolen sweaters, and warm hats. Old, wrinkled faces with white beards. Permanently muddy shoes. One of them offers me a sheet of his huge bag of bread, and tsks me when I spill a square centimetre of it falls to the ground. I’m guessing they’re not the most affluent people in the world. But it’s quite beautiful here. A thin strip of trees surrounded by grass hills, set against bigger, rocky mountain crest. I still had no idea what this valley had in store for me.

Alamout Castle is a very impressive place. Even though no walls remain, it’s easily to see how defensible it is. Set on top of a big rock, it seems tiny for what it was. But it’s hard to navigate alone, let alone with an assaulting force. Carcassonne is nothing compared to this. Supposedly, it also has a great view on the valley, for advance warning. But, in a stroke of bad luck, the whole site is covered in thick fog. I can’t see anything further that 30 meters from me. Definately not a view. Damn, I can’t even see the castle from the base, no overview. So, I decide to hitch a ride with some visiting Swiss down to the main road, and I go onwards. Towards Pidgibon. I arrive to the village at he end of the asphalted road, Garmarud. Population 2000 in summer, 400 in winter. About 100 meter wide, limited by sheer rockface. A tiny, tantalizing view of the snow capped summit of Shah Alborz. On the other side of the valley, a small village build on the mountainside. Clinging to it with hairpin dirt roads as if it’s fighting for it’s life. A very beautiful place. I spend the night there.

The next day, I wake up early, at sunrise. I decide to take all my gear, it possible from this route to make it all the way to the caspian, but in this season, all bets are off. A shepard asks me for a cigarette. And he’s dirt poor. Litterally. His mud caked fingers can barely grab it from the pack because of the cold, I have to do it for him. I set off on the muddy road, 17 km of uphill trekking before me. But not technical, I’m just following the road. There aren’t any alternative ways up, unless you’re a climber working in team. About 1 hours of climbing later, my jaws drops. I’m looking at Shah Alborz, big, very snowy. The valley beneath me is filled with fog, slowly moving upwards in a mesmerizing dance. The only sounds I can hear is the occasional tiny rock that falls down, due to subtle changes in temperature, and the constant trickling of  water from melting snow. And, for the next three hours, it stays like this. Inspiring, beautiful. Clean, cold air. Not another soul in sight. Just the road. It twist and turns so much I can’t predict where I will be in 300 meters. And steadily climbing. After four hours, I finally make it to the snow line. A funny feeling when I heard that first crunch under my feet. Only a week ago I was sweating in Turkey. And I will be sweating tomorrow too. But now, it’s cold. Not too cold though, I’ve lived in Berlin in winter, it’s perfectly manageable. And I see my destination: about 20 houses, huddles together on a white slope that goes on for another 600 meters. A mix of clapboard and more traditional, often abandoned houses. Small creeks everywhere to carry off the melting water. It’s gorgeous. Mostly because I worked so hard to get there. I ask a man how to get to the village store. While he explains, about twenty kilos worth of snow starts slipping from his sheet-iron roof and falls a meter from him. My bellylaugh is heard throughout a community. I get lost though, and an elderly lady decides to guide to me there. I’m slightly embarred that with her 60 years she jumps over the stream better than I do. And it’s good for me that she helps me, because going to the village store involves shouting the name of the shopkeeper for five minutes at the right spot. A 15 year old girl, but it’s weekend. My Farsi is not good enough to ask if they have a school here. I take one quick glance to check the road further, to the Caspian. It climbs another six hundred meters, and the villagers tell me there’s half a meter snow for a large part of the way. I fold, and head back to Garmarud. Downhill, it only takes me two hours, cutting through the hairpins. At the bottom, a shepard’s family is picknicking by the stream and invites me for tea and lunch, The father’s name is Hoessein. His elder son is Hoessein. So is the middle one, and so is the youngest one. I’m guessing they’re Shi’a. I can’t manage to get the name of the woman, she’s distant. I catch a ride with some youths from Tehran, playing around with a 4WD, to Qazvin.

The next day, S invited me to go hiking with the mountaineering group in the mountains of Gilan. A completly different world. Very mountainous, but it’s all covered with lush forest. It’s close to the caspian, very moist. Apart from the ruggedness, and the rice fields dotting the landscape, this could be anywhere in north-western Europe. A different world. On my first day in Iran, I heard that they have all four seasons. I was misinformed. They have all four seasons all the time. I enjoy the company of the others. Going in to nature is the favorite passtime of the liberals in Iran. As soon as we are out of sight of the main road, a third of the woman take off their scarves, and music is playign form a couple of cellphones. A very pleasant atmosphere. I laugh loudly when I realize I’m shocked at seeing a bare female neck. It’s amazing what you can get used to.