Racing the Roads of a Parallel Universe

The little Peugeot continued its upward climb out and away from the city of Hamedan, sweeping around small hills and along mostly dry stream beds, Masood shifting effortlessly from one gear to another in a race against the late afternoon sun.  The rocky, treeless hills, covered only in sporadic green grass and brush, seemed no place for any kind of industry, but that would be a wrong assumption.  Another bend, another sudden lift over a hill, and the realization that we are not alone out here is confirmed by another vast herd of sheep slowly sniffing and chomping its way across the landscape.  A sheepherder swings his long staff, keeping them somewhat organized with a tap here and whack there.   Often these herds can number a hundred or more.  The one I see now has a least that number, possibly closer to two hundred.  Once again I glance in all directions, looking for some indication of a village, a ranch, a something that would indicate a place of residence or safety for the herders and their accompaniment.

“Masood?”  Masood shifted gears once again and adjusted his sunglasses.

“It will be 2 hours more to Ali Sadr,” he said, thinking I was wondering about time and distance.  It was true I always kept an Iranian map in my lap,  acting as navigator and ever curious as to what lay all about us.

“Okay, that’s good, but I am wondering about these sheepherders, the choopans.  Where do they go at night? Do they sleep out there under the staray?”  English and Persian share many words, and star is one of them.

“They can, but usually they have a place to hold the sheep, with a small hut.  Or sometimes they use an old caravanserai.”

Caravanserais dotted the Iranian countryside.  We’d been passing them for days.  Silent testaments to an older method of travel, caravanserais appeared out of the need to protect animals and baggage along the Great Silk Road and its tributaries.  In ancient Iran, many of these roads and caravan stops had been constructed or improved out of the royal treasury.  Taxes collected from the travellers paid for the upkeep.  Like a tapestry, these roads wove a strong fabric, binding together both distance and empire, utilizing planned spatial location – never more than 20 miles apart, the distance a camel can walk in a day.   They were technological feats of their time, giving protection from bandit and storm alike.  The black ribbons of asphalt that mark the new pathways of commerce in Iran largely follow these old dusty routes.  The caravanserais, constructed of mud and stone, now melting into the soil from which they sprang, sit mostly unused, standing like tiny ghost towns, brooding and silent.  As we rounded a curve, another one appeared off to the right, perhaps a half mile from the main road.

New village just below the ancient walls. New road to the right.

New village just below the ancient walls. New road to the right.

“Masood!  I said, pointing. “Can we get there?”

“Looks intriguing!” came the voice of Heather in the back seat, munching down another fig.

“Of course!” came his cheerful reply.  “You are the boss!”

Masood eased the Peugeot onto a dirt track and we bounced our way down into a big ravine, wended our way thorough a tiny cluster of a village, crossed a brook, and bounded up the other side.  On the hilltop and directly in front of us the old caravanserai sat quietly in ruins, one side of the outer wall completely gone and only the bare bones of buildings remaining on the inside. Heather grabbed the camera and we were off, climbing, jumping, scrambling through and over the brown mud walls and old archways to nowhere, desperate to get a sense of what a Persian caravanserai was like.  We’d seen them in Azerebaijan.  Now was our chance to compare

A piece of the ruins inside the walls

A piece of the ruins inside the walls

From up here we had a perfect view of the surrounding terrain for miles, empty save for the small village below us that we had crossed through.  A few children had watched us force our way to the hill and now waved to us from the little village below.  Eventually, several of the boys would join us, curious as to who we were and what we were doing in the old camel stop.  For now, the place was ours.  The impressiveness of what it had been became clear as we explored.  There had been many rooms inside these walls at one time, and Masood confirmed it was probably used as a fortress for many people, not just merchants.

“Did you ever camp in one?” I asked.  “They seem like a perfect place for a trekker.”  I could imagine walking across Iran and utilizing these marvellous spaces.  Masood looked away.

“Yes, I used to,” he said slowly. Then he shook his head. “But no more.”

“Why? You don’t trek anymore?”

“No, no.  Not that.  I will tell you something most seriously.  No joking.”  I moved closer to hear his words carefully.  I already knew Masood well enough to know his ways.  When he said “no joking” he really meant it.

“OK,”  I said.  “I’m ready.”

“Two years ago I was with my friends trekking and we stopped for the night at a caravanserai.  This was not far from my hometown, Yazd.  We made our camp and chose our places to sleep.   I was sleeping a distance from the others, along an outside wall.   It was the middle of the night, cold of course, but no wind, when I heard a voice speaking to me.  I  opened my eyes and looked around.  There was nobody.  I lay still.  I listened.  Again I heard the voice, as if in my ear, right next to me. talking to me. I was scared, really scared.  I went to my friends and they were all asleep.  I sat next to them for the rest of the night.”

“They didn’t hear anything?”

“Nothing.”  Masood looked straight at me.  I felt a little chill in spite of the Woolx I had on. “I have never slept in a caravanserai since,” he went on.  “I visit, I look, I leave.”  He paused.   “What do you think?” The stones under my foot gave a grinding noise as I shifted my weight and turned to face him.

“If you tell me it happened, it happened.”  I thought for a moment.  “It doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.”  Massood looked up at the setting sun, now an orange blur between drifting white clouds in the distance.  We stood silently.  Around us the ruins stared back, the voices and animal sounds they heard long ago silenced by time.  Perhaps.  Masood finally spoke.

“Ali Sadr.  We should go.”  I capped the camera and motioned to Heather silhouetted in an arched doorway.  She joined us as we made our way to the car.

“This place is fantastic!” she gushed.  “I’m glad we got lots of pictures. What have you been talking about?”

“Travellers in the night.  When we get back to the highway, Masood has a story to tell you.  A good one.  No joking.”

Hostess of the caravanserai

Hostess of the caravanserai