Valley Of The Assassins
Author’s Note: The following is a re-write of a somewhat academic paper I wrote after my first trip to Iran back in 1972, thus it should be remembered that the setting is some 45 years ago. Much has since changed with Iran, as these were the heydays of The Shah, with Tehran being The Paris of The Middle East. But 1979 would change all that when the pro-western Pahlavi dynasty led by Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi was overthrown with an anti-Western authoritarian theocracy under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini – thus was The Islamic Republic of Iran born.
Of course since then the rest of the world has changed dramatically as well, as have we all. Iran is perhaps no longer considered the pariah state it once was and is slowly beginning to open up to the west. Whilst the tale that follows is based on documented fact from the academic paper written all those years ago, I have hopefully added a more human touch of romance. It also relies heavily on my aged memories, much dimmed by time and age. It is a tale of adventure and love.
“Are you still doing that photography shit”, the voice at the other end of the phone asked. The voice belonged to an old University chum Andy, now a lecturer in Middle Eastern Political Science at Manchester University.
At this point is should be explained that on leaving school, my parents decided that a career in photography would probably be my best bet, as I took “nice snaps” ! Quite clearly as one who had been told by the his school’s Headmaster that he was “the cleverest of the stupid children”, University was simply not an option. From my own perspective I welcomed the change, as it meant that I no longer had to study – or so I thought ! I was thus enrolled in a 3 year City and Guilds Commercial Photography apprenticeship. I will not bore the reader with details of what were probably the 3 most boring years of my life. Suffice to say that the day I qualified, I handed in my notice at the photographic firm where I had been indentured. However it would appear that at least some of the theory had rubbed off on me, as I latterly went on to earn a (albeit a somewhat lean) living for a couple of years as a freelance photographer travelling the world.
On returning to the UK, my by now frantic parents and perhaps a touch of sense finally prevailed, and I was talked into going to University. To this day I have a serious bone to pick with the Headmaster of my old alma mater, as I somehow passed the entrance exam for a BA at Bristol University, which was where I met Andy. On leaving University Andy had actually done something with his education, obtaining his Masters and ultimately becoming a lecturer at Manchester University, whilst I went on to become – a salesman ! It may please readers to know that I did eventually put my degree to the use it was intended, albeit much later in life … however I digress.
But back to Andy and his enquiry as to my photographic abilities. Seemed that his University was mounting an expedition to Old Persia, modern-day Iran, in search of the lost castles of The Assassins, a heretical Islamic sect, from whom legends and myths still survive today. Their existence was first brought to the attention of the West by Marco Polo, who visited their castle in Alamut in Northern Persia just after its destruction by The Mongols. He repeats the legend of how these future assassins’ were supposedly prepared for their missions by being seduced with the likes of hash, booze and women. This all apparently happened in a secret pleasure garden, and told that they had visited paradise, to where they would return if they were killed in action, as is written in the holy Qur’an and “The Gardens of Paradise”. Seems that they were the original versions of suicide killers and were sometimes known as The Assassins of Alamut.
Andy, the expedition leader had assembled a small team of intrepid explorers consisting of, himself as driver/leader, an additional driver/mechanic for the second Land Rover – male, the ubiquitous Scottish Engineer- male (there is always a Scottish Engineer in these sort of tales !) an overweight Qualified Nurse – female; Quantity Surveyor – male; Dutch Lawyer – female; a theologian – female; a journalist- female; a professor of sociology – male and finally a little old lady. In addition there was to be a male photographer. So in total, some 11 persons, with the sexes almost perfected balanced. They were to be accommodated across two long wheelbase expedition equipped Land Rovers that had been hired by the University, with the whole trip having been estimated to take approximately two months.
It seems that Andy’s photographer had let him down at the last-minute and he desperately needed a replacement – and of course he immediately thought of me. His offer was that all I had to do was to pay my share of the food and booze kitty and the rest of the expenses would be ‘on the house’.
As I was gainfully employed as a salesman in full-time work at the time, I would obviously need to obtain at least 6 weeks leave from my company. It was agreed that I would fly out a couple of weeks after their departure to meet them at a convenient location in eastern Turkey. Sadly the words from my boss were not that encouraging starting with, “are you f**king mad – not a chance in hell are you going to get 6 weeks leave, you know you’re only entitled to two weeks”. Even suggesting that I would be prepared to take the time as unpaid, did not evidently make for a convincing argument for him. Ever the adventurer and couldn’t care less soul that I was in those days, I was left with no alternative but to tender my immediate resignation. In the event this turned out to be extremely fortuitous to my love life, although sadly not my career.
So a few weeks later, courtesy of Turkish Airlines I arrived in the north-eastern town of Erzurum, found my way to the local hostel address that Andy had given me, to await the arrival of the rest of the team. On their arrival a day or so later, it was obvious that already having been in close proximity to one another for some 2 weeks, certain ‘alliances’ had already been established. Having never been shy or reserved, I threw myself on the teams tender mercies and have to say that given I was ‘the newbie’, they did go out of their way to make me feel welcome.
It should be mentioned at this stage that is common to most non-commercial enterprises, the expedition did have certain financial constraints, which manifested itself in the fact that most nights we would be spent camping, or at best, the occasional stay in the luxury of a hostel, rather than 5 star hotels.
Erzurum had absolutely nothing to recommend it, a grey soulless town of several hundred thousand people, all apparently living in grey soviet style apartment blocks. After visiting the old Citadel and some famous round tombs we were on our way. That first freezing night we camped at a less than ideal camp ground, where there was no hot water in the ablution blocks and I experienced the first of the long drop facilities that we would find for the balance of the trip. At the end of our second day on the road, we arrived in the city of Dogubayazit, in the shadow of the snow-covered Mt Ararat, all 16,000 ft of it. It will be remembered that this is where Noah’s Ark supposedly washed up after the great flood. After the previous nights cold and dreadful camping experience, there was general consensus to stay under a proper roof for the night, therefore suitable lodgings were obtained for us all.
After briefly exploring the city the next day, and whose only claim to fame is that it sits on the Silk Route road. We did predictably, fall prey to the ever-present gift salesman trying to sell us tat. In this case ‘genuine’ pieces of the Ark. Needless to say, we politely declined his generous offer of, “I make special price for you”.
However a few kilometres out-of-town towards the Iranian border, is the real life Temple of Doom lookalike Ishakpasha Palace, a well-preserved Ottoman period building. It sits in state atop a hill overlooking the valley beneath and the snow-cap of Mt Ararat in the distance. In those days as there were few tourists travelling to such far-flung and outlandish locations. We therefore had the place to ourselves and were able to wander through the halls of the semi-derelict palace to our hearts content. Of the many sights that we would see and experience on this trip, images of this place have mysteriously stayed with me down through the years.
The alliances that I had noticed previously were now becoming equally more solid and fractured. The overweight nurse, obviously has amorous designs on our second driver/mechanic, who I have to say was very gentlemanly like in his rebuttals of her. The Sociologist and the Theologian were becoming ever closer in their relationship, which I suspect was more platonic than sexual. At the previous evening’s dinner I had ended up sitting next to Inkeri, the blonde Dutch Lawyer, who fortunately spoke excellent English, with a delightful Dutch accent. A few tears older than myself, she lived alone in Amsterdam and was a commercial lawyer. She told me that her name meant “Beautiful Goddess”, which I thought summed her up extremely well, as to me she was indeed a blond goddess. I had up until then thought such women were way out of my league, and I’ve always been a sucker for accents! We chatted easily that evening, discovering that we apparently had several things in common and seemed to hit it off well … little did I realise that night how this seemingly innocent conversation over a kebab and rice would dramatically change the dynamics of not only this expedition, but also my life.
The next day, we would arrive at the Iranian border where our adventure would officially begin.
The entrance to Iran the following morning went smoothly for us the passengers, as the University had taken great care in ensuring that our individual visas were in order. Sadly the same could not be said for the Land Rovers, which it will be recalled had been hired for the trip. Seems that the hire company had not been quite so careful in respect of the details regarding the carnets for the vehicles. This strange document is I guess, the equivalent to a visa for each vehicle and is stamped into typically the leaders and/or drivers passport/s. Note the plural passports. The carnets for both vehicles were indeed stamped into Andy’s passport, notarising all the relevant and correct registration, chassis, engine numbers etc, complete with very official looking stamps in Farsi.
The problem occurred when the border guards, saw Andy get out of the one vehicle and the other driver/mechanic from the other. The first question that they asked (we assumed, as none of us spoke Farsi) was “Why is the second vehicle stamped into Andy’s passport and not the driver of that vehicle?”. The next puzzle for them was that the generic carnet stamp was shown as the profile of a long low American looking car, which clearly did not match the profile of our boxy looking Land Rovers. Our little Old lady, who I never did find out what was her raison d’être was on the expedition. She was however clearly creative, spending a good hour or so colouring in with black marker pen a reasonable rendition of the boxy Land Rover’s profiles complete with roof mounted jerry cans in Andy’s passport. This did seem to satisfy the guards, but we were still left with the problem of two carnets in one passport. I was to see for the first, but not last time, the age-old art of corruption in action, as a $20 bill was quietly removed from the other drivers passport by a thankful guard, with profuse apologies for having detained us for so long. We were free to go – welcome to Iran !
Our first stop was a short detour to Lake Urmia, the second largest salt lake in the world. Another night of camping, this time wild, surrounded as we were by dried salt crystals forming surreal shapes, resulting in a white apocalyptic landscape. None of us was sorry to leave what must be one of the most godforsaken and desolate places on earth the following morning. Heaven or hell ? In my book, most definitely the latter ! Mind you, it might have had something to do with the fact that we knew that we were in for a couple of decent night’s sleep in some sort of hostelry, as we would be arriving in the city Tabriz that day.
Returning to the Silk Road route once more, we set out for Tabriz in the oddly named East Azerbaijan region of Iran – one of the world’s oldest inhabited cities. Legend would have us believe that it is situated at the gates of the Garden’s of Paradise, as set down in the Holy Qur’an. A large city by anybody’s standards, rich in Azeri culture, famous for its carpets, traditional hammams (bath houses) Chai (tea) and coffee houses and a love of music. Legend also tells us that the city was the birthplace of Zarathustra, founder of the fire religion of Zoroastrianism, the pre-Islam religion of old Persia. This will perhaps be best remembered by Strauss’s fanfare piece of music “Sprach Zarathustra” made famous in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
From the earliest days of Christianity there has been a sizable Armenian community in Tabriz, and the city boasted a number of Christian churches, including one mentioned by Marco Polo. We strolled, becoming horribly lost in the vast 15th century covered bazaar, selling the brightly covered Tabrizi hand-woven carpets under the high vaulted ceilings. Tucked away in little alleys and walkways were many small caravansaries (Traveller’s Inn’s) mosques, and madrasas (religious schools) all added to the beauty and exoticness of the place.
With its amazing and ancient architecture, from the many mosques and their intricate mosaics … these were the sights of Old Persia that I had envisioned and dreamed of when reading Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat and Freya Stark’s 1930 travel book, “Valley of the Assassins” … all making for the perfect introduction to Iran proper. I couldn’t believe that I was so lucky to be there – and all I had to do was to take photos !
After another night of wild camping, we arrived in Tehran – which was in those days known as ‘The Paris of the Middle East’. Once again, we were able to enjoy a solid roof over our heads for the couple of days of our stay, having booked into a Persian equivalent of a YMCA. It even ran to a greenish looking swimming pool.
I will not bore the reader with the detail of the sights we saw. But the amazing architectural style of the Golestan Palace, the intricate mosaics of the main mosque, with its unique arches, gold covered domes and minarets, or the vast and ancient Borzog Bazaar where we became horribly lost. I will however mention the gorgeous looking Persian women, with their long lustrous hair and very modern dress, straight from the fashion magazines of the west. The roads were populated with the ubiquitous Hillman Hunter, a popular British car of the 1960’s. It would later become the home-built Peykan and remained in production right up to the 21st century. There were also many popular American cars … this was not what I had expected from the mysterious Persia !
Our evenings were taken up with eating out at several of the many restaurants, visiting a couple of the nightclubs and we even managed to find an Irish bar – I’m convinced that there is an Irish bar in virtually every city of the world ! It was here in Tehran that I was to learn that the second most popular Iranian food was the Pizza, where I had probably the best I’ve ever eaten.
Another milestone for me personally in this great city was that my relationship with Inkeri, the Dutch Lawyer was developing particularly well, with us growing ever closer. Sadly we could not consummate our relationship as yet, as our party was housed in shared, but gender segregated dormitory type accommodation. Perhaps youth, the inexperience of life and being thrust together in this strange, but exciting adventure attributed to our shared connection.
But I was beginning to fall in love, and as love does, it had warped my sense of time. Each moment with her seemed breathless and all-too brief. We were both filled with a yearning when we were apart, so we spent as much time as possible together.
After some 3 odd days in this cosmopolitan city it was time for us all to start earning our living, with our onward trip to Alamut and the Valley of The Assassins. But before we get to the detail and the real adventure of our trip, let me provide some brief background to The Assassins’.
Much has been written about this sect, which perhaps lacks some of the colourful and sensational qualities of the legends, but does at least have some elements of credibility. No longer can we believe in Hassan, The Old Man of The Mountain, hatching his devious plots and sending out his murderous emissaries, drugged up on hash and alcohol. Such a condition seems incompatible with the legendary accomplishment of the Assassins … their cunning, knowledge of language, mastery of disguise. Modern day terrorism proves to us that all that is required is fanaticism. Whilst it is possible that they did in fact use hash for religious purposes, the word “hashishin”, from which the word, “assassins” probably derives. “Assassins” was probably the term used by their many enemies. The role of The Assassins was primarily political murder – or hired ‘hit men’ as we would refer to them today. After the destruction of their home Alamut by the Mongols, they ultimately regrouped and were reborn as The Khojas of India. The modern-day Agha Khan is the lineal descendent of the original rulers of Alamut.
So back to our journey to Alamut …
We were equipped with a sketch map from Freya Stark’s original book, so we knew at least where the valley lay. It’s set in the at the western edge of the southern side of the Alborz mountains, between the valley of Qazvin in the province of Mazandarin bordering the Caspian Sea in the north. The Alborz mountain range is a wild and rugged place, with passes at close to 10,000 ft, and in those days remote, with little contact with the ‘civilised’ world outside of the villages that dot the region. Few tarred roads existed, but as we were to discover, not even dirt roads took us deeper into the mountains to reach our destination. On the southern side, the mountains are dry and barren, whilst on the north, they are green and densely forested … wild boar, bear and leopard still roam free today, and in medieval days must have been a common sight.
There were originally evidently several castles, but the main one lies in the Alamut Valey, near the village of Qasir Khan, which was where we headed. However the last main town was Qazvin, clearly marked on a map, so we set off there, planning to camp near the town and attempt to secure a guide to take us to the village of Qasir Khan. We had been told that there were trucks delivering supplies to the top of the valley, so we would find a driver or at least somebody who knew the route.
It was during this night of wild camping, that Inkeri and I were finally able to consummate our relationship, which nearly ended in a comic disaster reminiscent of a silent black and white Charlie Chaplin movie.
Like any air disaster, the final crash is not normally caused by a single incident, but rather by a combination of factors. In our case #1 was, the night was wet and a storm blew, so our tent was pitched on a slight slope, to hopefully allow any water to drain around it, making sense at the time of pitching it. #2: unbeknown to us the heavy rain had uprooted the main tent pegs. #3, inflatable air beds on which we slept do not have a lot of traction on a slippery tent groundsheet. #4: our energetic passion and athletics, caused the airbeds to start slipping down the slope. The end result being the complete collapse of the soaking wet tent around our naked bodies. Not exactly the night of passion that I had envisioned – but certainly exciting ! I will not bore the reader with how we eventually extricated ourselves from this hilarious mess, but we would laugh about that night for months to come.
The following morning we drove into Qazvin in search of a suitable guide, which would prove more difficult than we had originally thought. Nobody admitted knowing anything about the delivery trucks serving the valley. We were almost at the point of giving up, when a small boy appeared from a nearby chai house, inviting us in for tea. On explaining our predicament to one of the patrons, it seemed he was friends with a guy who owned a fleet of trucks and that he would take us to him. Matters were eventually arranged, money passed between us, so late afternoon saw us leaving Qazvin, following one of his delivery trucks. We soon found ourselves on a dirt road heading towards a high mountain pass, with hairpin bends so tight that the truck frequently had to reverse to get around them. By now it was dark, but in the headlights we saw flocks of what looked like small jumping kangaroos. We would latterly discover that they were jerboas, a mouse like creature, with an exceptionally long tail and oversized hind legs for jumping. We also saw at one point in this nightmare drive a much larger unrecogisable creature in our headlights dashing across the track. Eventually we descended down the other side of the pass into a small village where we stopped for chai.
Although we were all tired, dirty and exhausted, we had no option but to continue following our guide. Setting off once more, the ‘road’ ended abruptly, and we took to driving up the bed of we assumed was the Alamut River through a couple of feet of water. Soon we stopped at another village to sleep, but all quickly gave up due to the ferocious clouds of mosquitos. It was here that the truck broke down and whilst the driver was repairing it, he commented that we were all being made into kebabs ! After setting off once more, we eventually arrived at the head of the valley at around 3am. We had fortunately left the mosquitos behind and being too exhausted to set up tents, we slept under the stars, which were bright and multitudinous.
This was where our truck guide left us. We knew that from here we would need to find a further guide to take us cross-country to our final destination – the castles of Alamut. With relative ease, the following morning we found a fellow who for a few Rials agreed to be our guide, so with him sitting up front with Andy, we set off along a track following the Alamut River, with verdant green rice paddies to the side. I recall at one point we encountered an extremely rickety wooden bridge that our drivers were apprehensive to cross. As passengers we decided that we would cross the river on foot before the vehicles; in the event we all crossed safely, albeit slowly and piecemeal. Eventually we came across a small village whose name is shrouded in the mists of time. I do however recall that it was bordered by orchards and consisted of the usual flat-roofed houses where people were winnowing grain just as they had done hundreds of years ago. Just behind the village rose a small mountain of maybe 1,000 ft, atop of which is the castle itself. Whilst the face itself looked fairly impregnable, closer inspection revealed a channel running transversely across its face.
The locals were curious of us, friendly and made us welcome, inviting us to take chai with them. Through the extensive use of sign language, we let them know that we required a guide to take us to the castle. A young lad of perhaps 18 or so was summoned, who arrived with his friend and agreed to be our guide to the top.
As one who does not do heights well, all I recall is the sheer terror that I experienced on the climb up, but eventually and thankfully making the summit. Our guide’s young friend, obviously eager to show off in front of the foreigners, particularly the females amongst us, kept running down the steep slope, pulling up at the very last-minute at the edge, shouting with crazy laughter. He called for us to do likewise, much to the chagrin of the more mature guide, who doubtless was wondering how he would explain the deaths of several foreigners to the authorities.
The actual site itself, was after all the effort to get there something of a disappointment, consisting of the remains of a few stone walls and many shards of pottery. The most exciting aspect was the cistern, used to store water for the inhabitants, in which we swam, much to the horror of our guides, as they told us it was ‘bottomless’ and that we would be sucked down into its depths. The other highlight was a short tunnel cut through several levels. But the disappointment for us was heavy, we had travelled all this way for what we considered relatively little reward. But it became very obvious as to why the original castle had been built here, the site was virtually impregnable, with nearly a 1,000 ft sheer drop on the one side and an extremely difficult climb on all other sides.
We eventually returned to the village below, where the inhabitants gathered and were regaled by our guides with the stories of our bravery for swimming in the cistern – seems that nobody had ever done that before and was met with suitable expressions of awe ! We managed to convey our disappointment regarding the extremely limited extent of the ruins and were pleasantly surprised to be told that there was another couple of castles further down the valley, situated on hillocks. However these were apparently inaccessible as the valley had been flooded as a result of a dam that had been built a few years previously. We asked if somebody could guide us there and we were immediately inundated with offers to be our guide. It was therefore agreed that we would set up our camp in the nearby orchards for the night and travel down the valley the next day.
That night the village elders laid on a small celebration, with food and tea for all. Inkeri and I keen not to have a repeat of our earlier downhill performance, took great care to pitch our tent on flat ground, suitably distanced from the others. Modesty prevents me from reporting further on that night, suffice to say it met and exceeded all my expectations and perhaps set the scene for what would become a long-lasting relationship.
The next day the older brother of the previous day’s guide set out with us to take us to the other castles, eventually reaching them mid afternoon. I can still see the picture from all those years ago in my mind’s eye. We arrived high up on the side of the valley, gently sloping down to a huge lake, there were two castles, in remarkably good condition, in fact the one closest to us, look virtually intact from this distance. It was agreed that we would spend three days here exploring at least one of them. Our guide would go back to his village now, but would return after three days to guide us to the pass that would take us over the mountains to The Caspian Sea. We set up camp with a view to hike down the side of the valley and swim across to the nearest castle the following morning. I was particularly concerned as to how I was to keep my camera equipment dry, but then hit of the idea of using one of the inflatable beds as a raft, that we could tow across the water.
Those few days spent camping wild, the scenery straight out of an Indian Jones movie were idyllic. The castle was incredibly well-preserved, I managed to take some great photos, many of which were subsequently published. The weather was kind to us, the days hot under the Middle Eastern sun, the evening slightly cooler, with the heavens’ so close that you felt you could reach out and touch the stars. Fortunately the mosquitoes had deserted us, making for pleasant evenings spent cooking and sitting around a camp fire chatting about the day’s events and our respective past experience.
Inkeri and I were able to spend dedicated time together; ours was a holiday romance like no other; love kindled on the great adventure, set against the backdrop of Hassan – The Old Man of the Mountain. Over the days and weeks as we travelled through unexplored regions, so foreign to westerners at that time, two people who were adamant they were not looking for love, opened their hearts, fell madly in love and even began planning a future together. Of moving countries to be together.
Sitting side by side, there was plenty of time to talk, and that was exactly what Inkeri and I did, getting to know each other, finding out how much we had in common. When we were together it was as if we were on a specially chartered private vehicle, we noticed nobody else.
We soon became the talk of the expedition, others talking with smiling faces, and embarrassed giggles when it was obvious that we were holding hands. Our Land Rover had become the love wagon. Others shook their heads, wagged their fingers and predicted it would not last beyond the next long stop.
Some thousands of miles into the trip, we both knew we weren’t just on a trip of a lifetime, but a life-changing journey. We realised when we returned to the civilisation of Europe that we wanted to continue on new adventures together.
By now other liaisons had developed, this time between the male quantity surveyor and the female journalist, who names I still recall after al this time, Roger and Anne. Time, age, a life lived and dementia have long since erased the names of our other fellow adventurers.
After our three days at the site, we had fulfilled our brief and achieved most elements of the expedition’s academic objectives, even having managed to briefly explore the other castle further down the valley.
So now it was time to move on, this time towards the Caspian Sea. It was decided that we would take up the offer of our guide from the village to take us as far as the pass that would eventually lead us to the green and fertile coastal plain of Rasht and Gilan. We left before dawn driving slowly on the barely visible track through a dreamlike moonlit world of cool grey and black, in what seemed like a very different landscape from the yellows and reds that we had sweated through by day. Sooner than expected the stars began to fade. As dawn broke we stopped at a small grove of trees beside a spring to made tea. The water from the spring was so cold that it made our bones ache. The sun rose and burnt our skin in the thin air. We decided the stay a while longer to rest under the shade of the trees. I have for many years always carried a copy of The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam (as I do to this day) from which I started reading aloud – it was if we were transported back to the legendary and romantic days of old Persia, headiness, nights spent under star filled skies, deliciously warm. Sadly the sun became too hot, and the moment passed so we pressed on, eventually arriving at the pass around midday. All those years past have erased many details from my memory, but I do recall the totally incongruous sight of a man wearing Wellington boots and carrying an umbrella striding over the pass. Whilst it had been blazingly hot on the south side of the mountains, the northern side is a region of heavy rainfall, and the scenery changed suddenly and dramatically to green and richly forested, with the temperature dropping noticeably.
Here we said goodbye to our guide and set off downhill towards the sea and what we hoped would be some civilisation offering a decent bed and hot showers. Plus we were looking forward to a swim in the Caspian Sea. We followed a river downhill that would eventually lead us to the coast, passing a tribe of nomads and their black tents, the women in brightly coloured dresses shouting to marshal their goats. Towards the evening we arrived at a small village, where we ate a reasonable meal in a small cafe – one cannot call it a restaurant. But we were surrounded by curious villagers who plied us with questions, as to who we were, where we had come from, where we were going and the like. We were directed to a field alongside of a river, with rushing crystal clear waters and pitched our tents there. Exhausted as we were from our early pre-dawn start, we soon collapsed into a deep sleep.
The next day, we set off, accompanied by a truck full of the villagers taking their produce to market in Rasht. The journey was relatively short and I recall we arrived at a small guest house in Rasht around lunchtime – thankfully with hot showers !
From here we explored the green and fertile coastal plain of the Caspian Sea area, tasting caviar, which for most of us was a first. In those days this region as far east as Mazandran was considered to be the holiday area for wealthy Tehrani’s , many of whom had holiday homes along the shore.
From here we travelled onto Golestan, which is memorable for the fact that I recollect very little about the city, apart from the fact that it was home to the Qabus brick-built tower – evidently the tallest of its type in the world. We spent a day here before climbing to a higher altitude, arriving in the holy city of Mashad a couple of days later, with its huge Iman Reza shrine dominating the city centre.
As we were relatively near the Afghan border and had time to spare, we decided to follow the Silk Road as far as Kabul via Herat in Afghanistan. That was in those days a truly untamed and stunning country, the lack of travellers adding to its remoteness; I consider myself incredibly fortunate enough to have seen the Buddha’s of Bamiyan prior to their destruction by ISIS some years later. The lakes of Band e Amir set in starkly wild and beautiful scenery, with the crazy cliff and mountain formations were lunar-like in their solitude and inaccessibility. This was my second visit to Afghanistan and deserves a separate story all of its own, at some stage it will probably be the subject of one in the future. I will however tickle the reader’s interest by saying that it was here that we were offered 5 camels for our large female nurse … but that’s another story for another day.
It was indeed a memorable trip, one that had so many different outcomes and memories for each member of the expedition. However it also gave us a real feeling for the Assassins of Alamut, and the country of Persia as it was during their era – one that we could never have gotten from books. Also we gained a true insight into the people or this vast country first hand, their genuine warmth, hospitality and perseverance to exist in what were in many cases real hardship areas. I think I can safely say that it was this trip that stimulated my desire to return and further explore this amazing country. Little did I know that I would have to wait over 40 years for that opportunity.
You may be wondering what happened to the love affair with Inkeri. The expedition eventually returned to Europe, but for Inkeri and I we only travelled as far as Amsterdam, where she lived in a small rooftop apartment overlooking one of the many canals of the city. We lived here together like newlyweds for six glorious months. Sadly the relationship did not last, I think we both realised that it was circumstance and the isolation of being thrown together in such an alien and foreign environment that had brought us together in the first instance. However some years later I ended up working for a Dutch company and visited Amsterdam on a regular monthly basis and we reconnected briefly. She was now married, as was I, but we enjoyed a dinner reminiscing over our Persian adventure.
The journalist Anne and quantity surveyor Roger also became a solid item, maintaining an on-going relationship on their return to the UK. I recall meeting them for dinner in a Turkish restaurant in London several months after our return. Sadly time, distance and geography was not conducive to maintaining contact.
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