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Sand and Pomegranates

Slowly Crossing the Desert in Iran

Dunes in the desert of Iran.\

The sun shines as I wait at the crossroads for the small cloud of dust on the horizon to reach me. Today, I am visiting the desert for the second time. The first time I saw the Gobi desert roll by from a rickety Chinese railroad wagon was a beautiful sight but hard to appreciate, with speed and glass separating me from the experience. This time, I am resolved to take it slow. I am standing on the edge of the Maranjab desert in central Iran. My dirty backpack holds three kilos of food and twelve liters of water. I do not have a car or even a driver's license. I’ve decided to hitchhike, so I bring so much water. It is not that I cannot afford a cab or an organized tour. I want to walk and sleep alone in the desert.

Endless desert waves in Iran.

How I got to stand at this crossroad is another story. I have been on the road for four months, hitchhiking from my native Belgium. I am taking things slow and appreciating everything between my home and destination. We are called overlanders — people who like to travel at our own pace. I see a lot of other overlanders here in Iran. No one goes by car, many by bike, and most follow the classic route from Europe to India. The route has been popular since the late 60's and early 70's, when thousands of hippies converged on their trip to the East — often by hitchhiking. In fact, there are so many overlanders here that every local I meet asks me where I am going after Iran as if the country is not a valid destination in its own right. Iran is enough for me, though. I have planned to visit this country for over a year, with my imagination fired by several serendipitous events. I read up on it and attended an inspiring concert of traditional music. My Iranian friends all make fun of me, though. They see the irony of millions of Iranians trying to get out of the country, only to see me be so desperate to get here. But I am firmly resolved to spend all the time I can here. It is a beautiful and big country, ethnically and climatically diverse. But I digress.

I was telling you how I got to these dusty crossroads. The answer is hitchhiking. I did cheat a bit as I took a taxi to the edge of town to start. Low fuel prices and high unemployment here make transport by taxi excessively cheap, so I decided to indulge for three Euros to save two hours of walking or the hassle of figuring out public transportation. After that, figuring out which direction to go is easy. Iran has a lot of bilingual Persian-English street signs, and I get out of the cab at the signpost pointing to the desert. I wait five minutes before the first truck arrives, and then I find a ride in another one. I make good time until I arrive at the military base.

The base is enormous, more than a kilometer on each side. The road runs right next to it. I walk until I reach a big stop sign with a lot of Persian writing. I stop. I look at the guard behind the fence, but he is just morosely staring at me. I am unsure what to do. So I slowly walk towards him, making sure that doing so is also OK with him. Iran is not a country where you want to do something wrong, especially since they have a habit of indicting tourists who are mistaken as spies. The soldier replies with surprise at my hesitant hello. Yet, he looked puzzled when I asked him if this was the right direction for the salt lake, the most significant landmark. He is probably confused due to my rudimentary Persian. I called my friend in Tehran and explained the situation to him. I then hand the phone to the soldier. Again, I was hoping that I would not look like a terrorist with an explosive device carefully constructed to resemble Scandinavian technology. When I get it back, I only hear laughter from the other side. My friend told me it was OK to walk on, but the soldier wondered why I asked him if he had any salt for me. He is also wondering where my car is. I am satisfied and slowly walk past the base, still keeping eye contact with every soldier I see on the way.

After these tense moments, I am merrily hiking on the road. I am happy to be moving and just put one foot after another and let my mind wander over the empty landscape. I am not in the sand desert yet; it is still a slightly green landscape of uninspiring small hills. I walk slowly, adapting to this new environment and getting to grips with the fact that this is where I will spend the next few days. It is warm, but not hot. It is mid-November, the sun never rises high enough in the sky to be dangerous, and it is cold in the shade. There are no trees and no buildings around. I keep walking along on the dusty road. I keep walking until I reach an intersection of dusty trails. One is marked in Persian, but I can only understand that it does not point to the desert or any landmark. The other trail has no sign. It is probably right, but I do not want to make a mistake. If I have to walk the entire trail length, it will take me at least a day and a half to get to the sand dunes and the same coming back. Doing so would leave me without enough supplies to spend time at the salt lake. I decided to take the safer option. I wait for a ride. Twenty minutes later, I am waiting for a dust cloud to approach, which is getting bigger and closer.

The car stops with two males in their thirties while modern hip-hop music blares. They are very unsure about what I am doing there. Nevertheless, I made them understand that I was not in an emergency. I would be very grateful if they could take me deeper into the desert — which they promptly did. They are scouting out a hotel for an upcoming trip. The hotel, an ancient caravanserai, is right next to a 400 square-kilometer dried-up lake. Perfect, I say. We cover the 30 kilometers in an hour and a half. I am happy I could not walk this uninspiring stretch with my heavy backpack.

When we arrived, the hotel showed no trace of human occupancy. My drivers, in quintessentially Iranian style, propose that I go back home with them, spend two nights as a guest, and then join them again when they return with tents. It is genuine hospitality, something which, two months ago, in other countries, would have astounded me. But here in Iran, I get offers like this all the time. I am conspicuous with my blue eyes and blond hair, but everyone who visits this country has the same experience. Free taxi rides and family meals are offered to me as soon as people see me pass through the streets. There are many stories, but Iran is rich in hospitality. I decline the men’s offer, though. I am not in the mood for a couple of days of pampering, especially since I cannot converse fluently. And I am not in the mood to return when I just reached my destination. We say our goodbyes. When they leave, it is only me, the caravanserai, and a school bus of children taking their first ride on a camel. They look a bit puzzled when I start marching away from the road. I walk for another three hours and pitch my tent for the night.

I am on the edge of the salt lake. It is enormous — 400 square kilometers. Although it is as flat as a pool table, I cannot see the lake's edge on any side. I walk a bit before the night falls, mainly to keep the silence at bay for a few moments longer. It turns out that there are only three things to see here: The section where the salt looks like small, half-centimeter-thick worms; the section where the salt is gathered into fist-sized balls; and the section where the salt has gathered in ridges, creating a pattern of irregular polygons for miles around. It looks like a giant board game, and I am too small to understand the rules. I sit down next to my tent.

I am just looking at the sunset and listening to the silence surrounding me. It sounds like static. My ears cannot cope with this absence of stimulation, which is unnerving. I am bored. I eat slowly. I walk around to hear my shoes on the salt crystals and know I am not dreaming. I watch nightfall. It is a full moon, which makes it hard to see the stars. The best viewing will be in the morning when the moon is over the horizon. Then, I see two campfires light up, and suddenly, I realize I am very lonely here. I have my book and food — everything I need to be here. But I have nothing coming in, no new things to see or do before I sleep. And it is only seven p.m. I start walking to the closest fire, but I quickly realize there is no way I will ever find my tent if I continue. And, since I made a deal with myself to sleep alone here, I am unwilling to pack the tent, and I pace nervously around it.

Suddenly, a loud, groaning noise comes out of the dark. It does not sound like anything I know — too monotone to be a storm. It moves slowly from left to right but does not sound like any car or truck I have heard. I have no idea what the sound is, and that scares me. But there is really nothing I can do except secure my tent for stormy weather and wait. Perhaps it is a sandstorm? The noise fizzles out slowly, and I have nothing to do but go to bed at 8 p.m.

I sleep like a corpse. Memories of the last dream or two continue to buzz around in my head when I open the fly of my tent. It is still as dark as a cellar outside, with no trace of the moon anymore. It takes my eyes a while to adjust, but then I see it — an impossibly starry night. Something I have seen before, but it is so rare that I pause to enjoy it for a while. The night is cold, but not as much as I was led to believe by all the legends I have been told. I still see the campfire burn in the distance, even though it is four in the morning. The campfire comes from the direction of the caravanserai, so I decide to call it quits, pack up, and head over there. I need to find my next ride. While I am marching, the sky slowly reveals purple, red, orange, and yellow slivers. I feel this dome is gradually revolving around me, as this terrain is too flat to suggest any motion. I do not even feel I am moving — the only clue is the sight of the caravanserai slowly coming into view. Yesterday's mystery was also solved when I noticed the loud noise again and saw it was associated with blinking green and red lights in the sky. They are departing air flights, which are still low as we are just two hundred kilometers from Tehran. They are loud due to the lack of buildings to dampen the sound and the ubiquitous sand, which causes echoes.

I arrive and am not surprised when I am invited to have tea with a group of students around their campfire. There are five of them, and I am amazed they are all men. The desert is a favorite among young people who want to mingle freely, just as it is a favorite for everyone who wants to indulge in wildly illegal behavior. Parties, dancing, and even a woman without a scarf can be found in the open in Iran if you know where to look. The mountaineering clubs are usually filled with liberals, the hikes are filled with political debate, and cell phones are blaring music. But, this time, I meet people who are bona fide tourists.

I get on very well with Mahdi, a 22-year-old. His English is fine, but he owns the Jeep they are using. And I am in luck. He has traveled a lot in the country, so we talk about different regions. He has traveled to all of them, including the cold Zagros mountain range, where the Kurds live, the wetlands of Iranian Azerbijan, and the Zoroastrian remains near the border of Iraq. It is difficult to find decent information on Iran, more complicated than every other country I have been to before. Even locals use Western guidebooks as the best guides available in any language. Much information seems to be shared by half-remembered conversations with tour guides, but there is no alternative. I feel slightly sorry for him because I know he cannot leave the country.

Passports are only given to men who have completed their mandatory 2-year stint in the military. And, even then, it is hard to move around. Another Iranian friend inspired me to take it slow. His Schengen visa was refused, but he decided to go to Europe for three weeks to the only country that does not require a visa for Iranians — Kosovo. Mahdi invited me to continue my trip with them. There are already five in his party, but he manages to squeeze two people into the passenger seat. We are driving off-road, enduring hours of bumping around. We follow the tracks of the previous Jeep to pass through, which is easy to follow as the salt is crushed flat under the tires. The tracks will stay there for thousands of years. We horse around a lot. We have saltball fights. We play baseball with a shovel. We are driving recklessly, a quintessentially Iranian wild form of entertainment practiced because it is one of the only legal ways to have fun. 

Salt tracks created by the Jeep coming from the lake.

Most people see the natural world because it is the only way to be yourself in this country, away from the prying eyes of unofficial police and neighbors. We make it to the sand dunes, and the same happens here. We push each other off the crest and try to snowboard down on a traffic sign we found a ways back. I am amazed at how hard it is to walk in this environment. The sand has strong and weak areas, but I need to find out which one is where. Cresting a dune is even more challenging. Unless you dig in with your hands and feet, progressing is impossible — you slide back down to where you started. The trick is to take it slow, going deliberately and digging in. It has been amusing for a while, but I am relieved I am not hiking through the dunes.

Sand dunes in the desert and rolling hills are difficult to hike.

I spend the next two days with this group, visiting nearby towns and camping. Some things I had already seen, but I did not care. I have all the time I need anyway. In one famous park, Mahdi's friends excuse themselves to go and pray. 

Mahdi stays with me, though, and I remind him that I have my own form of praying — eating pomegranates. He laughs; he is just as wild about them as I am, and when we discovered this, we bought five kilos the next opportunity we had to do so. Eating pomegranates is probably the finest metaphor for Iran. Only when you open the skin do you realize what you have gotten yourself into! It might be young, yellow and sweet, dark red and sour — or anything in between. In any case, it is the only thing you will do for some time. You need both hands, so eating standing up or walking is very awkward. And you will get dirty, so reading a book or spending time at the computer is equally impossible. When you are eating pomegranate, it is the only thing you are doing.

Traveling in Iran is best approached in the same way. Cities are far from each other, and attractions are sparse. After a week or two, I became frustrated and tired of churning miles in trucks and buses. I wanted to avoid getting lost in anonymous big cities, with every street indistinguishable from the next. But, after a while, I decided to appreciate this slowness. 

I went with Mahdi on another road trip, and having your own car with a friend behind the wheel makes all the difference. You can share long talks about dreams and aspirations. I learned from him how it is to be young in Iran. How boys and girls can meet in semi-normal circumstances. We exchanged stories, perhaps too many stories. For example, in the story, one of his friends gets kicked out of university for smuggling a girl into the student dormitory while hidden in a refrigerator box. Or the story about how he was beaten up by unofficial police when he was trying to get his vote back by demonstrating in 2009. Now, we can share the story about meeting somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

The funny thing about traveling slowly is that it never really feels slow. The longer you stay somewhere, the more you discover and the more satisfied you feel about your knowledge of a particular country or region. More importantly, such a way of traveling allows you to spend more consecutive time with people you meet along the way. You get to know new friends better and, as a result, build a more profound friendship. You discover things about each other that you would have glossed over if you had less time. A country or region is more than a collection of cities and sites. It is also the story of innumerable people and an entire culture that is never easily understood.

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