Getting stoned was a bad experience

THAT SUMMER
Click to follow
The Independent Travel
I had never been stoned before, at least not in the biblical sense. I wasn't sure how to handle it. I plodded on until one of my assailants scored a direct hit on my left temple, whereupon my self-control and I parted company. I bent down, grabbed a handy piece of Marand mountain roadside and hurled it at my persecutors. It was sheer luck that one of them intercepted my lack of aim; there was a loud cry and to my amazement they disappeared.

The backpacking fraternity hadn't introduced themselves to the Persians in 1972. They just spluttered through on aged buses to Afghanistan where the hash was cheap. If I had any doubts that I was a pioneer, those Kurdish youths dispelled them.

Next day I arrived in Tehran, and returned to the 12th century. I approached an imposing bank in the city centre, to change some money. The commissionaire looked doubtfully at my threadbare shorts, but let me pass. As the doors whispered shut behind me, the horn-blaring, heat-blistered inferno of Tehran was replaced by a delicious, cool silence. The marble hall swept be fore me to the foot of a grand staircase, totally empty. I knew how Alice in Wonderland would have felt at the bottom of the rabbit hole.

I paused, then tried the first door on the right. A boardroom table was surrounded by a group that looked as if they could be the governors of the Iranian Central Bank. I hurriedly tried to withdraw, but before I could free my rucksack from the door jamb, one of the Savile Row suits arose and inquired in impeccable English if he could help me. The Persian banking system halted while I was ushered politely through the corridors of power to the public halls where I could change my pounds 10 into rials.

A week later hospitality joined courtesy on the roll of Persian virtues. I was in a remote village on the shores of the Caspian Sea, sipping a rose petal sherbet and studying my map, when a minor problem presented itself. The road back to civilisation carried about six motorised vehicles a day. Off the beaten track in Persia nobody really understood what a hitch-hiker was, and I could envisage spending weeks travelling to Isfahan, my next destination.

Luckily, though, all Persians travelled by bus, and the smallest outposts boasted remarkably good services. So I headed for the bus station. The man in the ticket office and I got on famously. Despite my elementary grasp of Persian he perceived that I wished to catch a bus and mimed in return that it departed at six and a half.

I reported at six, just as my friend was shutting up for the night. A flaw in our communication became apparent. The bus left at 6.30 the next morning. This was serious news. I was a good sleeper, and my chances of waking up at 5.30am on a Caspian beach without an alarm clock were zero.

Umar smiled. There was no problem. I was to have dinner and sleep at his house. Then he could ensure that I caught the bus.

The house was a large building, ranged around a central courtyard. Each wall had a verandah: the effect was like a miniature cloister. We sat on the floor around a beautiful Persian carpet on which were placed dishes of lamb, rice yoghurt and sauces. I was squatting on my haunches, when an animated discussion developed, apparently about my clothes. Umar beckoned me through to his bedroom, produced a splendid pair of the baggy trousers, and motioned me to put them on. I was bemused by this ritual, but returned to the dining room dressed in Umar's best.

As I again squatted down to eat, the room dissolved in laughter. The family realised that I actually preferred squatting to sitting, and had not been protecting my filthy jeans from their spotless floor.

Iran was a jigsaw of fascination, and I was sad when it was time to begin my long hitch-hike home. Just outside Tehran I was picked up by a juggernaut. It was raining by the time we reached Tabriz and up in the mountains the temperature had plummetted. Beyond the town the road continued to climb, winding up each successive ridge and snaking down each valley. On a clear day we might have seen Ararat to the north. Now, however, night had fallen, and the headlights fought to slice through the wall of the rain.

The driver was singing in a nasal falsetto interrupted by frequent yawns. He gesticulated emphatically - would I take over the driving? But I had no desire to start learning how to control a heavy goods vehicle with two fully laden trailer units, on potholed hairpins, in a thunderstorm at night - and in a foreign country. Instead, I just shouted at him every few seconds to keep him awake.

The following year a guide to Iran was published, including tips on backpacking. I suppose it would have been useful; but then usefulness must be weighed against the delights of the unexpected.

Comments