We arrived in Qazvin before 10:00. I reclaimed my downsized pack (I left all unessential items in Tehran) from the trunk of the shared taxi and negotiated a private taxi to take me to where the Alamut-bound taxis congregated.
I negotiated a ride to Ramyizan, an entry-point into the Valley and the jumping off point for the Lamiasar Castle - 4000 tomans ($1.20 USD). I was the second to commit. Once the remaining two seats were filled we would hit the winding road. I took advantage of the wait time to source breakfast.
I entered a small shop. A glass case beside a flat grill top was displayed the calories on offer. Selection was limited. I pointed to the least offensive looking array of sliced sausages and with the same index finger indicated that I wanted one portion.
Moments later I had a sandwich. Before returning to the car, I also bought an array of biscuits and nuts to stave off starvation lest my planned two day trek in the mountains didn’t unfold as anticipated.
I munched. The car now awaited a single outstanding occupant. I was still hungry. I had noticed a stack of eggs in the same shop where I had purchased the survival snacks. The corner store owner was chatting with the sandwich maker. The opportunity was primed. I mustered some communications skills and approached them. With my hands and a smile I did my best to ask: ‘If I buy to eggs from you, will you cook them for me.' They were quick on the uptake and I slammed the scrambled egg sandwich as the ancient Peugot sputtered to life.
Ninety minutes from departure we arrived in Razmiyan. The drive had stolen my breath on multiple occasions. The stunning mountain scenery was a welcomed offender. The diesel trucks we overtook on the narrow slopes much less so.
As we swayed with the mountain contours, I pulled out my Persian phrasebook to interact with the locals in the backseat. We broached a few of the basic topics (my job, my martial status, etc.) One of the guys had also discovered a page which listed translations for wildlife. He passed over the list informing me which animals I could expect to find in the hills. He placed more emphasis on one in particular – Gorg. Running my eyes across the page I learned that this meant wolf. This would prove crucial.
Upon arrival in Razmiyan, one of my savari mates was keen to walk me to the Lamiasar castle – 2 km up the road. Although our spoken language overlap was capped at 10 words, he was an excellent communicator and so our interaction flowed. He was also 23, married and now traveling to a nearby village to build a house. His brother had died six years ago in a flood nearby, he was disappointed at Canada’s deteriorating relationship with Iran and thought an Israeli-led attack unlikely. He was missing four teeth at random – quite the contrast to my braces-infested smile.
He left me at the castle turnoff. I fastened my pack around my hips and trudged to the top of the hill. The sun was bright and the breeze brisk.On top I greeted the only other person. I explored the castle ruins, shared some biscuits and took in the panorama.
After a little while the man offered me a ride back to town and I followed him down the mountain path. In town I bought new batteries for my ailing head lamp and a couple of oranges to fight off scurvy before negotiating a taxi to Gazor Kahn (110 km up the valley). Transport options were super limited and my time tight so I settled on a steep market price - $12 USD.
We reached Gazor Kahn, the village at the base of the Alamut Castle, the most legendary Assassin Castle at 15:30. I paid the taxi driver. He was unhappy because I had negotiated a short detour to view a lake en route into the price and he expected to receive more. It was very clear before leaving Razmiyan what the deal was (my Qazvin – Razmiyan driver was there to broker the deal) and I had no interest in permitting the language barrier turn me bitter.
Again, I fastened my pack over my hips and set off up the steps to siege the castle. Part way up I waved to a man atop the ruin. As I reached flat ground, I passed a guard house. A man emerged and sternly said, ‘Ticket, ticket’. ‘OK’, I replied, ‘Chand toman?’. At this point he consulted his mate lounging on a bed in the hut. After some suspicious back and forth the man demanded panj hazard tomans – 5000 tomans almost $2 USD. I was taken aback. I expected 1000 tomans at most. I grudgingly handed over the cash but indicated that I expected an actual ticket in exchange. The man played this down. His refusal heightened my suspicion that there wasn’t actually any cost to visit the ruin, and that the soldiers were taking advantage of their post to scrape some extra cash from me. I don’t mind sharing the wealth, but refuse to do so in a dishonest demand. He said he would give me a ticket after my visit.
Whatever, the sun was waning and I had worked hard to get here. I set off to explore the ruin. It was special. I was alone, gazing out to the snow-capped peaks dreaming about what adventures the creators of this fortress had known.
Before the sun disappeared below the horizon I gathered my bag and made a move. As I descended the crumbling steps past the guard house I was met by the soldier. He smiled and handed me my 5000 toman bill. I offered him a biscuit almost to say ‘good boy’.
He brought me into the hut for cay. His comrade’s eyes oozed curiosity. I smiled cautiously. I attempted to assess the extent to which these two were two soldiers with guns operating under an unpredictable government versus to what extent they were two young guys bored out of their minds ontop of a ruin and hoped that sharing cay with a rare foreign guy might move the clock just a little bit faster that day.
We interacted. After several minutes, they wanted to see my photos. ”Shit” I thought, their intentions still not obvious to me. We flipped through the pics on my camera. Fortunately, there was no risk of offensive images like there had been earlier in the week.
It was soon time for me to go. They offered for me to spend the night with them in the hut. A head bow conveyed the humility I felt, but I seriously considered the offer for all of zero seconds.
I walked briskly from down from the castle to the village, eager to salvage as much sunlight as possible before darkness promoted shadows and noises to gain unjust importance in my imagination. I armed myself with two solid stones, confident that village mutts would be lurking.
At this point I had very little knowledge of what options were available to me for accommodation. I was keen to find somewhere to sleep, some food and some local information on my planned two-day trek. Within a span of fifteen minutes everything was evident. I bought water before the village shop closed. Next, I encountered the village taxi driver. He was leaving the following morning at 0700 to Qazvin and was adamant that my trek ambitions were a no-go. The words barf (snow) and gorg frequent and menacing in his chosen vocabulary. I thanked him, but was skeptical. Our motivations were misaligned. If I were a cab driver interested in filling my car for the following day I would encourage potential passengers that any alternative to returning to Qazvin by road was impractical as well…
I needed somewhere to sleep. I gave my hands under my head as a pillow routine to an old lady sweeping her porch. She pointed across the alley. Full darkness had now descended, but the stars had yet to achieve their full potential. I rapped on the metal door and was let in. I followed the short man up a set of concrete stairs and into a room. There was a large table with a bench and three single beds. I gave him a thumbs up. He placed three notebooks on the table. I motioned that I needed food and he gently contracted his palm as if he was holding and egg. I nodded with acceptance.
When the man reappeared fifteen minutes later with fried eggs drowned in cooking oil, a slab of dry naan and a bowl of curd (yoghurt) I was already deep into the notebooks. It was a compilation of greetings, stories, improvised trailmaps, guesthouse testimonies and drawings left by past visitors. The oldest was written in 2006 and the most recent two weeks prior. It was super cool.
I came to the conclusion that the two day trek really wasn’t a good idea. I wasn’t equip to hike snowny mountain passes nevermind brave winter nights without villagers support en route. And then there were the fabled gorgs…
I would spend the evening reading, writing and reflecting. The village setting, the crisp air, the kerosene heater in the corner of the room and the brilliant stars recalled fond memories of past mountain excursions in Nepal and Guatemala. Life can be simple.
I awoke early the next morning and was in the village square by 0700. By the time the taxi driver arrived in his yellow four-door I had already loaded my pack onto the ancient bus. The other passengers in the bus were elderly villagers heading off to work in the fields for the day, I considered switching vehicles but decided to stick, but enjoyed the surprised looks I received when opted for the bus over the taxi. I was keen not to disappoint.
I arrived in Qazvin before 10:00. I ignored the taxis who honked at me as I walked down the boulevard to the bus terminal. I needed to stretch my legs. I was headed for Rasht, close to the Caspian Sea coast. After orienting myself amongst the muted chaos of the bus terminal I learned that the next bus didn’t depart until mid-afternoon. No problem, I would find a shared taxi. I was led by a man to a taxi stand. I left the stand moments later with the understanding that I would pay 6000 tomans to get to Rasht, sharing the taxi with three other people. The price struck me as slightly cheaper than I would have expected, but not unreasonable. I did my hand to mouth routine to indicate that I would source food while I waited for him to source three other Rasht-go-ers. He summoned that I should get in the taxi and he would find a food shop for me.
We stopped a moment later and I bought a sandwich.
As we pulled out of Qazvin and onto the Rasht-bound highway, I began to questions how much our expectations overlapped. Was this guy really driving me to Rasht for 6000 toman? Where were the other people to share the cost? Why did he want me to put my pack in the back seat as opposed to the trunk?
I opened up the topic. He began to repeat a two syllable word that I interpreted to be the name of our actual destination. I asked him how far it was, “Chand kilometre?’. He typed 20 into the calculator on my mobile phone. My disposition did a 180 turn. With a stern, but still playful face I said “6000 toman for 20 km?!”. I inquired as to how far Rasht was and how much that would cost. He said, “190 km and 10 000 toman.”
Trying my best to remain calm, I attempted to communicate the logical flaws in his cross multiplication. Sure, I was currently in a private taxi against my will, but that’s not want I wanted, nor understood. It was an unfortunate misunderstanding – bound to happen once in a while when you don’t speak the same language.
I motioned for him to pull over. Reluctantly he did. We argued back and forth for a couple of minutes. I was resolved in my decision to remove myself from the situation, but I felt bad. I gave him 2000 tomans, hoisted my pack from the back and walked away from the taxi. He sped off.
Now, I was on the highway 10 kilometers out of Qazvin. I began to walk. I had to void my bladder before I could make any intelligible decisions. I found relief behind some trucks staggered on the side of the road.
My next move appeared obvious immediately after. I stuck my arm out. The Middle East is simple, they don’t even require you to twist your thumb when looking to hitch a ride. Only a dozen cars passed before a big semi applied his brakes. I jogged fifty metres to meet the lorry.
I foisted my bag up into the cab and climbed onto the seat. The driver’s hand shake was firm and his smirk mischievous. He merged into the traffic.
I pointed up the highway and said ‘Rasht’. He flipped his head (the same as shaking in the West). Nah. “Tabriz,” he stated, his lips tightening. My mind went into imaginative analysis mode. I had a rough idea of how far Tabriz was, but pulled out my Lonelyplanet guide to corroborate. It is close to the Turkish border and driving time would be about 8 hours. A long time in the car, but could be a serendipitous adventure.
The only logical way to decide my destination was to flip a coin. I found a 500 rial coin in my pocket and voiced my intentions to the driver. He was amused. ‘This side Rasht’. I turned the piece. ‘This side Tabriz’. As the coin was tossed the driver’s eyes shifted between the road and the action. It landed in my palm and I placed it on the back of my hand. As I was about to reveal my destination destiny. The driver stretched out his finger towards my chest and said ‘Rasht’. There was no room for negotiation in his voice. Within seconds he slowed the truck and I got out. He turned off the road and onto the Tabriz expressway.
I flagged a shared taxi and arrived hours later in Rasht. It was just as well. To protest the truck driver’s authority would have been to disrespect the coin.