A Gloved Madman Behind the Wheel in Northern Iran
By Troy Nahumko
The shared taxi driver strapped on his fingerless driving gloves and gripped the small chain steering wheel as he jumped in, not what you want to see when you’re about to travel a notoriously dangerous highway.
His needless revving of the tuned Iranian-made Paykan’s engine and obvious impatience didn’t exactly inspire confidence either. Things had started to look grim.
With my total knowledge of Farsi limited to just about nothing combined with the nervous looks from the other local passengers in the shared taxi, things looked even grimmer.
The Smell of Burning Rubber
Maybe the two-hour wait by the side of the busy road for the car to fill up in the sticky humid air that rose off the Caspian wasn’t so bad after all, but as he screeched off it was then too late to wait for another, it was going to be a long ride.
The lingering smell of burnt rubber was an inauspicious end to an eye-opening journey through the beautiful though scarcely traveled northern tip of Iran. As the driver pitched us from one near-death experience to the next, vibrant green rice paddies melted past the window on the left while the Caspian’s black sand beaches hemmed us in on the right.
Eyes closed as the gloved madman overtook four cars at once around a blind corner, I conjured up a place a few hours prior that had opened those eyes to a little known part of Persia. A place in the Talesh accented mountains where the temperatures were 15 degrees cooler and impending doom wasn’t lurking in the oncoming traffic.
Hues of Green
The Talesh and Sabalan Mountains may be dwarfed the by towering Alborz Mountains that rise from the smog of northern Tehran, but as they run down the Caspian coast from the border with Azerbaijan, the hues of green found in this fertile area challenge the preconceived idea of Iran being nothing but a vast desert littered with beautiful blue-tiled mosques.
Here perennial mists seem to slide off the Caspian and drape these ranges with a diaphanous light when temperatures in the more famous southern tourist sites might be hitting 110º under an unrelenting sun.
Brahman cows wander along the roadsides while brightly dressed women tend the tea bushes of the plantations in the area.
The once traditional thatched-roof wooden buildings are now a rarity as they now compete for space with modern holiday homes that creep up the coast and invade from the direction of Tehran.
The Talesh and Azeri minorities which make up the bulk of this area add new lilts to the Persian soundscapes, reminding the traveler of the contrasts ever-present in a complex place.
A sudden lurch of the streaking taxi broke the mountain reverie as our shared fate swerved to miss one of the wandering Brahman beasts that had meandered onto the highway.
A woman’s prayer beads clicked faster than the fence posts darting by the roadside and finally one of the local passengers asked the driver to slow down, only to be rebuked rudely in a language that needed no translation.
The woman went back to her beads but then had a second thought. If there is something more sacred in Iran, it is the bread that was broken out by the bead-clicking woman and shared around. As our eyes met, everyone was surely thinking that this meal might be our last, again no translation needed.
The distinctive colorful carpets of the region hung for sale along the side of the road seemed to act like bullfighting capes to the driver, spurring him on in his attempt to break his personal speed record to Astana, our destination on the border with Azerbaijan.
Back to that happy reverie before the Brahman jolt. To a place west of the black market caviar dealers in steamy Rasht, where the roads wind through rice paddies and tea plantations that wouldn’t be out of place in Southeast Asia.
But here, as soon as the road begins to rise into the mountains, the date palms give way to the lush forest that covers these ranges. Climbing from the Caspian’s below sea level position, the humidity condenses to form curtains of mist from which villages peek out of as they hug the valley walls.
The sky looks like an inverted sea in the distance and under it the village of Masuleh crawls up the mountainside appearing as jumbles of houses befit a cubist painting stacked one atop another.
The roof of one house becomes the terrace of the house above it, blending with the trees into the green mountainside. Stairways intertangle in the cubist maze while water tumbles down everywhere on the way to the world’s biggest lake.
In contrast to houses further south in the country, these look outward rather than inward, trying to harvest the little sun that breaks through the mist.
Orange Flavored Tobacco
Tourism can be felt here, the houses are all colorfully painted and the few outsiders that make it are warmly welcomed, but it is still a place where people live and make their lives.
Locals rent out rooms to travelers and it’s impossible to walk through the village without being invited in for tea and the orange-flavored tobacco that wafts from every terrace, no matter where you are from.
The inevitable trinket shops cater to the mainly Iranian tourists looking to buy local delicacies and most of the handicrafts available are locally produced, but livelihoods here are still made on the side of the mountains.
Perhaps the most notable difference after traveling around traffic-crazy Iran, when coming to this green mountain village, is the silence.
Due to the way the village is constructed, only the bravest of drivers dare work their way up the tangled paths. So amidst the mist, you are treated to something that is indeed rare in this enormous country, a total lack of car noise.
After the call to prayer, the only sounds are those of neighbors chatting from the terrace to terrace, the gurgling of Qaylan waterpipes, children playing football in the lanes and every present sound of rushing water.
Paths leading further up into the mountains offer fantastic day hikes and the only other walkers you’ll find are shepherds and their flock.
Lights in the Mirror
Back in the death mobile after another series of stomach-turning stunts, a curious thing happens. The Iranian bullfighter starts gesticulating and hitting his chain steering wheel. Lights flash in the mirror and I realize that we are being pulled over. The dreaded Iranian police have come to save the day.
The driver is asked to step out of the car and is given a serious lecture, no translation necessary.
The now-broken speed demon pleads, but to no avail and is given a ticket. As he gets in cursing and muttering, all the passengers’ eyes meet and share a discrete smile, once again, no translation necessary.