After a somewhat peculiar interpretation of a western breakfast at the Negin Hotel I had a quick look around the city of Bognurd before I headed off. It seemed to be modern and soulless – just like the hotel.
With little of interest to keep me in Bognurd, I headed for Gorgan, 350km up the road. Gorgan is the eastern gateway to the Caspian Sea and to get to there I would have to climb up a low pass that separated the mainly desert province of Khorasan from the very different province of Mazandaran, the thin slice of northern Iran jammed between the Alborz Mountains and the Caspian.
Discussions that I had previously had with travellers who had travelled the Caspian Sea route across Iran often cited the humidity of the Caspian coast as the main reason for disliking it. After living in northern Australian for the last 35 years I discounted this as a plausible reason for disliking any particular region.
I should not have dismissed them so lightly.
As soon as I crossed the mountain pass and dropped down to the narrow coastal plain the weather changed almost immediately. No longer was I riding in dry desert air. The air became very, very humid. I had not encountered weather like it since the heatwave days in northern India three months ago. It was still only 35-40° but it felt much hotter. I stripped down to just a T-shirt under my jacket but the sweat just poured out of me.
I was only one day out of Mashhad and already I had the nagging feeling that I should have stuck with my original plan to head across the desert to Yazd and then on to Esfahan.
It was as I trundled along the highway to Gorgan, trying to stay out of the path of the usual collection of maniac drivers wandering all over the road at 140km/h, that I began to notice an odd but repetitive sight. At many places along both sides of the highway (and sometimes on the median strip if it was wide enough) hundreds of families had pitched small tents and sun shelters and were enjoying quite elaborate picnic lunches.
What is so odd about that? Well may you ask.
You see, I was in Iran and Iran is one of the most conservative Muslim countries in the world and we were still in the holy month of Ramadan. Not only that, we were in the last ten days of Ramadan which are particularly holy to Muslims. This means all good Muslims should be fasting between dawn and dusk, not wolfing down picnic lunches in public places!
It wasn’t until several days later in Tehran that an old Iranian gentleman explained what was going on.
Apparently there are certain catergories of people that are exempt from the fasting requirement of Ramadan. One of these categories is “travellers”. All travellers are exempt from observing the fast. The question is: how to define a “traveller”. Depending on which school of Islam you belong to, it is a person who has to travel either 15 or 16 farasikh which can be equivalent to anywhere between 77 and 138km.
So, during Ramadan, many Iranians apparently feel the urgent need to visit relatives who just happen to live more than 77km away! That way they can have their picnic lunch with a clear conscience. Very pragmatic, but not quite in the spirit of things.
As Gorgan hove into view, I began the popular game of “find the guest house/homestay/hotel”. The Hotel Pars had been recommended to me by a few travellers but, when I asked some locals for directions they advised me not to stay there and tried to direct me to a few guesthouses in the forests at Nahar Khoran just outside town.
But I persisted with finding the Hotel Pars as it was close to the centre of the city. Eventually I found it in a tiny alleyway off a narrow laneway off a small street. After spending so much time finding the Hotel Pars I wished I hadn’t. It was without doubt the most run-down dump I had seen in the entire trip. But the thought of going back out into the sweltering heat and the maniac drivers was too much, so the Hotel Pars it was for the night.
I have never regretted a decision so much. The bed was truly horrendous. I have seen hammocks that were flatter than the mattress. The bed linen looked like it hadn’t been changed since Alexander the Great stormed through here in 330BC and the ceiling fan struggled to move itself let alone any of the stale air. Apart from one other poor soul I was the only guest enjoying the “pleasant courtyard of orange trees”.
It was going to be one very long, hot, sweaty night. If this steamy, humid weather was what the Caspian Sea route was going to be like for the next 2-3 days then it was time for me to call it quits and head back over the mountains to Tehran.
I couldn’t wait for the sun to rise on the new day.