Gulag Trail - the Road of BonesExplore Siberia’s wild side on this fascinating journey across Russia’s stunning trans-Baikal.
Iran has more cars than there are fleas on a gum diggers dog. I was too young to remember the time when Germany produced a small bug like auto that was popularly known as the ‘peoples car’. It wasn’t the only car on the block but it sure beat standing in a long line for a Merc or a BMW. VW ‘bugs’ were available, they were fuel effecient, carried four passengers in reasonable comfort and could be repaired with a ring spanner. In Iran the average car owning Iranian family man has a few different makes and models to choose from but it will have many of the charactistics of the VW era of motoring. Same cc rating, same bhp, same colours – mostly white – same wheel radius, no bling and mostly all locally produced for a market that seems happy with the idea that one size fits all. If you like cars as expressions of self esteem Iran is ‘petrol head’ purgatory.
We have been dicing with swarms of boxy little four door family sedans this past week. They press every advantage on the open road and clog every town centre. Our driver is a man of consumate skill and endless patience who has yet to raise an eyebrow at the antics of his fellow drivers. He is a man who drives to survive and we are more than happy to be in his care. Our ‘road trip’ has taken us from the Armenia border across Ardibil province to the Caspian coast and now we are in the historic capital of Qasvin. Now that we have a thousand or so kilometers or so under our belts we have some experience with Iran’s transport infrastructure and it is impressive. Iran has a modern well engineered highway system which leaves me thinking that one thing they might do for us in the land down under is build us some half decent roads.
We have arrived in Qasvin from Masule. The contrast between the green misty forests of Gilan province and the arid desert fringe at Qasvin is stunning. This once upon a time Royal capital has plenty of interest for us and we are here to explore its Persian Royal Road connections with the Silk Road. Qasvin has had a strategic position on the east, west and northern trade routes since at least 250BCE. Although a one time capital of Persia under the Safavid dynasty there is archaeological evidence that a settlement existed here from prehistoric times. Many notable Persians are buried in Qasvin so it is another important destination on our journey across ‘Mazaristan’. Before we get out and about in Qasvin however we are off to the rugged interior to visit the mysterious castle of Hasan-i-Sabbah at Alamut. This was the home base of the so called ‘Sect of the Assassins’ and the principal site of one of the most intriguing eras of Persian history. It is an imposing spot for a fortress perched on the top of a gigantic rock outcrop. Enough of it remains to make the climb worth the effort to reach the summit where broken masonary and dark passageways lead deep into the cliff. It looks imposing but clearly didn’t bother the Mongols who in 1256 overcame the defences demolished the fort and burned its famous library.
Nowadays the ancestors of the original inhabitants of the Shia Nizari Ismaili state are spread far and wide across central asia’s mountainous regions; in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan province, Tajikistan’s Pamir and in China’s Tashkorgan Tajik Autonomous Prefecture. They are a liberal minded, forward thinking folk who value equal rights for men and women and are engaged in enterprise and commerce in most places in the modern world. Iran is the exception. We are back in Qasvin late in the afternoon along with a strong desert breeze and a swarm of little white cars gusting like windblown litter along the city streets.