Overland to Bangladesh 1973 – Part 4: Erzurum to Mashed
Erzurum was not Istanbul, however, and I did not want to spend long there. I decided to cut my losses and continue to Tehran in the hope that there might be a message from Ashley there. I caught a bus east to Agri, intending to continue as far as Dogubayazit, near the Iranian border. However, a bout of food poisoning interrupted my progress and I had to rest up in Agri for two days, feeling distinctly rough. The staff of the small hotel I stayed in treated me kindly and charged me at a lower rate for the room. I was anxious to move on and, although not fully recovered, I moved by stages to Dogubayazit, at the foot of snow-capped Mount Ararat, and then to the Iranian border. Customs on both sides let me off lightly, although I noted that ‘however easy they make it, the manoeuvring of the trunk makes it an exhausting process’. The other side I sped off towards Maku in a canvas-topped pick-up with wooden seats. The roads on the Iranian side were smoother, no doubt thanks to oil money.
I was keen to reach Tehran and, although the Tehran bus had just left, I was told that the Tabriz bus would catch it up at Marand (about three-quarters of the way from Maku to Tabriz). This seemed like a good idea, but in practice, it didn’t work out so well. Arriving at Marand, which was the Tehran bus’s lunch stop, I had to do a lightning speed transfer, leaving no time for refreshment. It was then 3.30pm and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. To make matters worse, the only seat left was at the back of the bus. By the time we stopped for supper at 9 pm, I was past eating and only felt like drinking fizzy orange.
I reached Tehran at 3.00 am on Monday, 17th September, feeling pretty shattered. I shared a taxi with a Swiss couple to the Amir Kabir Hotel, a well-known travellers’ haunt which the Butterfield group were supposed to have used. On arrival, we were told the hotel was full, but eventually they took pity on us and offered us beds on the roof, which we accepted. Exhaustion and weakness caught up with me and, having been given a room, I took to my bed for the rest of the day. I regrouped in Tehran, picking up two letters from my parents and the long-awaited message from Ashley. The latter read: ‘Well you never caught up with us, did you? Well our plans are as follows…’ which was followed by information about their itinerary, most of which I already had. There would be another message awaiting me in Kabul.
Tehran did not make much of an impression on me. It was a big, noisy city with western goods on sale in department stores. I walked the streets, but was soon anxious to be on my way east again. My departure required much less exertion on my part than normal, as there were plenty of willing ‘trunk-carriers’. This time I was better prepared for the 20-hour journey, having armed myself with a cooked breakfast and bearing a thermos of cold orangeade and two cold meat rolls.
Tehran to Mashed
The journey to Mashed, although long, passed in relative comfort as the bus was only half full and I could stretch out. As so often, the bus travelled through the night, so I was unable to see Mount Damarvand (5,610m) as we passed through the Alborz range and then spent hours descending towards the Caspian Sea. As the sun rose, I could see we were passing through attractive, thickly wooded, hilly country – a nature reserve. I spotted an owl on a telegraph pole. The last few hundred kilometres to Mashed were across a vast flat alluvial plain, the road straight as die.
My journal has a more upbeat feel to it from this point. I was becoming a more seasoned traveller, I suppose, and I had resigned myself to doing the journey by myself. I was also making good progress in spite of the encumbrance of my luggage. I had little choice but to keep moving as my funds were short and my luggage made detours difficult. I was a traveller rather than a tourist and as a traveller on that route, there was a certain camaraderie with others that developed as I started to come across people who were travelling the same way at a similar pace.
A small boy with a barrow ferried my luggage from the bus to Hotel Shahsavir, a Butterfield hotel. The place was somewhat taken over by a party of about 20 Indians who were cooking and dining in their rooms. I changed a £5 traveller’s cheque and had an omelette and a tomato for lunch. The egg diet had settled my tummy troubles. Then armed with Ashley’s map, I headed for the Imam Reza Shrine. I soon discovered that Ashley’s maps were schematic and not drawn to scale. I walked for miles, arriving at the Shrine just before dusk. It is the largest mosque in the world and fabulously decorated with tiles and gilding.
Walking to the bazaar, I bought some turquoise and was then lured into a carpet shop by a teacher who spoke English. ‘Just look.’ I sat down and was given tea and made to feel welcome – to the extent that I felt relaxed enough to part with £115 on a beautiful rug. I made a down payment of £45 and undertook to pay the balance when I reached Bangladesh. They would then ship it to England. All of which happened and, on payment of a fairly hefty sum for Customs duty, it found a place at my parents’ home in Ripe. Unfortunately, they got rid of it at some point during one of their many house moves. Nevertheless, Mashed made me aware of a weakness I have to this day for oriental rugs.