Save for the several hundred policemen and dissidents injured during the street clashes and the 12-year old girl who was most unfortunately decapitated by a loose kite string as she rode on the back of her father’s motorbike, the lawyer’s protest and basant were resounding successes. The judges in question were reinstated, the city was able to celebrate its favourite festival once again and the nation settled down enough to allow me to commence my long and tedious exit.
Heeding the warnings of other bicycle tourists who spoke of the frustrations of endless enforced police escorts, I decided to instead suffer the 30-odd hour bus trip across the Punjab and problematic Baluchistan Province. Some may consider this to be a certain act of self-inflicted torture, but a combination of fairly comfortable quarters on the bus, stunning mountainous desert scenery, a positive mindset and of course; my MP3 player, made the journey bearable. I can not say the same for the King Brown or the crates of squawking chickens that he was strapped to on the rooftop.
Little did I know that just as I thought that I was through the worst of it, the torture had only just begun, as I crossed into the Islamic Republic of Iran.
I had arrived at the very modest border post with my busload of Pakistanis and Iranians at six in the morning and as the sun rose over the horizon, it began to hot up. I took shelter leaning against the wheel of a truck while a father and his son performed a few snippets from their travelling magic show, refusing to reveal their secrets unless tips were forthcoming. I prefer to maintain ignorance and therefore preserve the magic.
The gates were finally slid open at eleven and true to form, the mob that had been waiting so patiently for so long, suddenly said, ’to hell with order’ and thrust their boxes, bags, sacks and selves towards the narrow opening. Also true to form, as the lone white person, I was able to simply stand to one side, away from the fray and wait to be ushered through. My very conspicuous VIP status would be my demise more than my salvation though, as soon after, I was informed that I would be required to be personally escorted to the town of Zahedan, fifty kilometres along a desert road in this volatile area where Iran meets Afghanistan meets Pakistan. Two hours later, my army escort arrived, we acquired a minivan at my expense and were under way. As we cruised along the straight, black highway, surrounded by nothing but sand, I looked over at my escort. Unarmed, without any form of communication, I wondered how this crew cut teenage kid was supposed to protect me against any danger that might arise, as I am pretty sure that the white fella-kidnapping terrorists in the area conduct their business armed with…….well, more than nothing. They could have done it with a set of clothes pegs, so wet behind the ears was my escort.
We pulled into a set of barracks where he escort requested my passport, setting in motion a hostage situation that was to last for the next two hours. His replacement, equally young and ill-equipped, joined us in the minivan and refused my persistent requests to return my passport. This is when the great Iranian game of ‘Pass the Foreigner’ began.
Despite assurances from the english-speaking immigration officer that I would be taken directly to the bus station where I catch a bus out of this troubled region, I was handed over to the police at the local station. There I met the second and last person for the day who could speak more than a word of English. Once more, I explained that I wanted to catch a bus to the town of Yazd.
‘No problem,’ the young officer assured me, while keeping a tight grip on my passport. Half an hour later, two more officers arrived in a car. They were handed my passport and given what I had assumed to be instructions to escort me to the bus station.
‘Follow,’ I was ordered.
For twenty minutes they drove ahead of me at a snail’s pace while I cycled after them through the run-down, dusty city. When we arrived at yet another police station, I could barely believe it. I was ordered to wait by the front gate for my escorts to pass the baton, but instead marched fumingly into the station, demanding the return of my passport and to speak to someone who understands English. Neither demand was met since no one understood English and I found myself with little choice but to follow their instructions to load myself and the King Brown into the back of their ute and pray that they had understood my pleas to be taken to the bus station.
My prayers were in vain.
For fifteen minutes we drove before meeting another police vehicle in the street. Once the handover had taken place, I slyly held out my hand to escort #4 in expectation and he placed my passport in it. It took him but a second to realise his mistake and he grabbed my wrist in an Iranian death grip and wrenched my little, blue lifeline from my grasp.
Onwards they drove while I cycled behind on my tour of Iranian cop shops. By the time we reached the next one, we were on the outskirts of the city and heading ever deeper into the desert. What was going on began to dawn on me; despite the time being 5pm and the destination being nearly 1000 kilometres away, these fools thought that I wanted to cycle to Yazd and intended to escort me from one police district to the next until I arrived, which at the rate we were going, would have been three weeks away.
I was now beyond despair and the inhabitants of my new station found my antics of throwing my gear to the floor, kicking the dirt and stomping around to be quite humourous. I yelled, “Bus!” I screamed, “Coach!” I pleaded, “Otoboos!” But it was to no avail.
Then by chance, I found a picture of a bus station in an old guide book I was carrying.
“Aaaaah, istgah otoboos.”
I had made an almighty breakthrough, but dared not count my chickens. A phone call was made and while waiting for my escorts to return, I drank my chai with a stiff tension that felt like I had steel rods inserted throughout my body. For forty five minutes more, I cycled behind a police car until I caught a glimpse of the promise land; 6-wheelers, 8-wheelers, coaches, mini-buses, shelters, ticket booths – we had reached the most elusive bus station in the world, but I began to rejoice all too soon. On the very brink, literally fifteen metres from the driveway, my escorts pulled over beside a traffic cop booth and I was handed over yet again – told to wait until my next escorts arrived to take me the final stone’s throw. I could not fucking believe it!
My patience and temper has been tested countless times throughout the tour by a range of frustrating situations, but never had that frustration threatened to manifest itself as physical action. At that point however, standing on the little island in the middle of the road, I had the overwhelming urge to grab one of the rifles that was laying around and pump a few rounds into the air. I even imagined the headlines; “Gun-toting Australian shot dead by law enforcement in Southern Iran.”
Instead, absolutely fuming, I marched across the road, ignoring all pleas to return, with the intention of buying a bus ticket and coaxing the cops into returning my passport and releasing me on the grounds that I had a bus to catch. One young officer
ran after me, but must have seen the fire in my eyes, for he dared not restrain me, instead opting to simply trail at a safe distance. Alas, the bus companies would not sell me a ticket without presentation of my passport. All of my firm fury immediately melted down to a soft sludge of weak helplessness. I dragged my feet back to the booth, flopped down on top of a crate and buried my head in my hands.
An hour later, two young, friendly army cadets, one of whom was armed to the teeth, arrived on a motorbike. Together we rode into the station, bought a ticket to Yazd and waited beneath the stares of hundreds for my fifty-seated conduit to freedom. Only upon boarding was the hostage that was my passport returned to me and I felt naked no more, though the feeling of having been violated remained.
I slumped down weakly in my assigned seat.
Throughout my travels, I have learnt that it only takes one or two bad experiences for a traveller to write off an entire country as unfriendly, extortionate, aggressive or whatever and at that point, I wished that I had not bought a ticket to get me 1000 kilometres deeper inside Iran, but one that would carry me the 3000 kilometres out!
It is with great delight however, that I can say that my Iranian experience did not end there because although certain hardships would continue to be faced, a beautiful, warm nation was to be revealed. It would greatly contribute to my ever-continuing journey of breaking down preconceptions and opening my eyes ever wider, thus allowing the magic of all that is to flow in.