Iran 1973: Car breakdown at the Caspian Sea



Asien 1972-73
Fishermen with sturgeons, Mian Kaleh Peninsula, Caspian Sea. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Tehran, the capital of Iran, is a bleak place early in spring. After a hard winter, where cold winds swept through the city, the surrounding landscape is bare, its principal colours being brown and grey. Imperial eagles (Aquila heliaca) and black kites (Milvus migrans) soar high above in search of food. Here and there, rows of poplars break the monotony. High up in the trees, rooks (Corvus frugilegus) gather around their nests, calling raucously – a sign that spring is just about to arrive. But still a harsh wind blows dust and dirt about in the streets. When they have finished their shopping, women hurry home, pulling their chaddor down to cover their face. Houses here are unheated and damp, causing women and children to huddle around the fireplace in the kitchen, while they prepare their meal.



Asien 1972-73
Arne (left) and myself at our van, c. 25 km east of Tehran. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Spring in the Elburz Mountains
North of town, the mighty Elburz Mountains rise, snow-clad and forbidding. This is nevertheless where my companion Arne Koch Christoffersen and I are heading. We do some shopping and leave Tehran. In the foothills, the rivers, tumbling down from the mountains, are swollen with melt water. Along their banks we see white-throated dippers (Cinclus cinclus) and white wagtails (Motacilla alba). Here and there the snow has melted, and in these patches colt’s-foot (Tussilago farfara) and lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) are already in bloom. Small tortoiseshells (Aglais urticae) suck up the heat from the spring sun. On the rocky mountain slopes, people still live in caves. The road climbs steadily, surrounded by snow-covered fields. Snow-fences have been erected along the road, but, nevertheless, large stones have fallen onto it here and there.

We pass snow-clad Damavand, at 5,671 metres the highest mountain in Iran. The road heads through tunnels and over mountain passes, before we dive into a dense cloud cover on the north side. Here the climate is almost sub-tropical, the mountain slopes covered in rich forests of broad-leaved trees, such as oriental beech (Fagus orientalis) and species of oak (Quercus), maple (Acer), and poplar (Populus), most of them already sporting fresh, green spring foliage. Flowers and birds abound, and a number of different mammals live here, such as roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), fallow deer (Dama dama), brown bear (Ursus arctos), and grey wolf (Canis lupus).

For two days we are parked near a small stream, waiting for the pouring rain to stop. Everything is wet, very wet. But despite the weather, birds are singing merrily, among others chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs), winter wren (Troglodytes troglodytes), song thrush (Turdus philomelos), blackbird (Turdus merula), and robin (Erithacus rubecula). In the evening, a tawny owl (Strix aluco) hoots. On short trips along the stream, we find flowering primroses (Primula), vetches (Lathyrus), and violets (Viola).



Asien 1972-73
On our way towards the Caspian Sea, we crossed the mighty Elburz Mountains, passing snow-clad Damavand, at 5,671 metres the highest mountain in Iran. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Asien 1972-73
Sheep, grazing in the spring forest, Elburz Mountains. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Asien 1972-73
Local men, entering the forest in the Elburz Mountains to cut firewood. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Asien 1972-73
Two of the wood-cutters, crossing a temporary bridge. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Asien 1972-73
Cooks at work, cleaning radishes outside a road restaurant south of Amol, Elburz Mountains. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



World’s largest inland sea
As the rain doesn’t show any sign of easing, we continue our journey further north towards the Caspian Sea, at 371,000 km2 the largest lake in the world, with depths up to 980 m. As the lake has no outlet, the water is salty, with a salt content around 1.5%, but much higher in inlets. Many species of fish live in this lake, among these a species of sturgeon (Acipenser), which supplies Shah Muhammed Riza Pahlevi with caviar. This product seems to be so important to him that he keeps most of it to himself, while most of his people live in poverty. In this inland sea you also find a species of seal, the Caspian seal (Phoca caspica), which lives nowhere else on Earth.

Near the foothills, huge areas have been converted into rice fields, and at this time of the year, ploughing is taking place. We make a stop near a small canal, in which numerous marsh frogs (Pelophylax ridibundus) are croaking. Dice snakes (Natrix tessellata) are basking in the morning sun, and we also see a legless lizard, or scheltopusik (Ophisaurus apodus) – a relative of the slow worm (Anguis fragilis). A man, who is passing by, approaches us to see, what we find so interesting. I make twisting movements with my hand, causing him to smile. “Hreli!” (”Many!”), he says, continuing his walk. In a village we stop to buy food. Its houses are constructed of sun-dried bricks, plastered with mud. Among the straw on the roofs, groundsels (Senecio) are blooming.

The fertile strip of land stretches almost to the shores of the Caspian Sea. Rows of low, yellowish-grey sand dunes stretch along the coast. Depressions among the dunes are covered in vegetation, primarily prickly tufts of a species of rush (Juncus). The beach is hard and smooth, and thus very good to drive on. At the water’s edge, we see feeding greater sand plovers (Charadrius leschenaultii), Kentish plovers (C. alexandrinus), and dunlins (Calidris alpina).

In the south-eastern corner of the lake is a 70-kilometre-long sand spit, Mian Kaleh, pointing east, hereby creating a large inlet, named Gorgan Bay. On their northbound migration in spring, numerous birds follow the shoreline, concentrating in numbers at this sand spit. Before we continue our journey towards Afghanistan, we would like to study this bird migration.

Along the shore, we encounter the occasional cluster of fishermen’s huts, and flat-bottomed boats are hauled up on the beach. A large number of fishermen – forty or fifty – are pulling ashore a huge net, full of fish. To reinforce their effort, each of the men attaches a hook to the net before pulling. When coming ashore, he will remove his hook, wade into the water and hook the net again. This is hard and tedious work. A Caspian seal pops its head out of the water, but when one of the men aims at it with his gun, it immediately dives out of sight.



Asien 1972-73
Low, yellowish-grey sand dunes cover a large part of the Mian Kaleh Peninsula, in the south-eastern corner of the Caspian Sea. Many plants grow in the more humid depressions among the dunes, e.g. a species of rush (Juncus) with long, prickly leaves. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Animal life on Mian Kaleh
We stay in this area for two weeks, every evening parking our van among the dunes to spend the night here. This is a marvellous place for a birdwatcher. Among numerous other migrating bird species, we observe Eurasian crane (Grus grus), pallid harrier (Circus macrourus), imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca), steppe eagle (A. nipalensis), peregrine (Falco peregrinus), and Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus).

Every morning, the sand is criss-crossed by tracks from numerous millipeds and beetles. Ant lion larvae have constructed small pits in the sand, waiting in ambush at the bottom of the pit for an ant or another small animal to fall into the pit. As the unfortunate victim tries to crawl out of the pit, the larva bombards it with sand, causing it to fall to the bottom of the pit, where the larva grabs it with its mandibles, whereupon it sucks out its body juices.

Perched in the top of bushes, corn buntings (Emberiza calandra) are singing, and from dense shrubs we hear the morse-like call of black francolins (Francolinus francolinus): “Erp-serp-se-se-serp.” Hares (Lepus) are common here, and we find tracks of red fox (Vulpes vulpes) and badger (Meles meles). At dusk, golden jackals (Canis aureus) utter their eerie howling call.

One day, when I am out walking, I hear a snoring sound from a dense patch of grass. I approach to have a closer look and see a wildboar (Sus scrofa), sleeping in its grass nest. Suddenly my heart almost jumps into my mouth, as it leaps to its feet, but luckily it doesn’t attack, instead running for dear life.

From our camp, we walk across the peninsula towards Gorgan Bay, passing through fields, which are enclosed by fences of dense, spiny shrubs, constructed to keep cattle and sheep from straying. We have our difficulties finding our way through this maze. In the grass we see many species of familiar flowers, such as speedwell (Veronica), shepherd’s-purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), common storksbill (Erodium cicutarium), and scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis), the latter mostly in its pretty blue form. Greek tortoises (Testudo graeca) creep about, and when we squat to have a closer look at them, they retrieve their head into the carapace. If we wait a few minutes, however, the head will soon re-appear. Beautiful hoopoes (Upupa epops) are flushed from the grass, and when they land again, their large, black-tipped red crest is invariably raised.

Finally, we reach the littoral meadows, which surround Gorgan Bay. In its shallow waters, many different birds are roosting, such as white pelicans (Pelecanus onocrotalus), greater cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo), teal (Anas crecca), lesser white-fronted geese (Anser erythropus), greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber), and spoonbills (Platalea leucorodia).



Asien 1972-73
One day I heard a snoring sound from a dense patch of grass. A wildboar (Sus scrofa) was sleeping in its grass nest. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Asien 1972-73
An antlion larva has caught a caterpillar, its mandibles buried in the caterpillar’s body. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Asien 1972-73
Greek tortoises (Testudo graeca) withdrew their head, when we got too close. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Every few days we drive to a nearby town to do some shopping. One rainy day we pass a man, wearing the typical sheep-skin hat of the Turkoman people. He is walking along the road with a brown sheep under one arm, a stick slung over his shoulder, onto which he has tied bags of sheep cheese. Rain is pouring, and it is cold, so, using sign language, we convey to him that he (and his sheep) can get a lift to town. In the distance, the small town of Aschur appears through the mist, marking the eastern tip of the peninsula. Our hitch-hiker disembarks, thanking us.

A young man suddenly appears out of nowhere, asking us where we are going.

“To the harbour.”

“Just a moment. I have to make a phone call!”

To whom, and why, we never learn, but in a small building near the harbour we must show our passports, before they allow us to go back the way we came. Before we proceed, we are invited to visit a cold storage plant, in which great heaps of frozen sturgeon and other fish are stored. Before stacking them, a man cuts off head and tail, using an electric saw, and these are stacked in separate heaps.

On another occasion, we give a lift to an elderly man. He informs us that he is only going 6 kilometres. But when we have driven these 6 kilometres, he wants to go further. We pass our campsite, and, using sign language, we inform him that we have now driven 12 kilometres. Just 3 kilometres more, he says. All right, we can do him that favour. After a further 3 kilometres he still wants to continue, but by now we have had enough of him and his kilometres, so we stop the car and tell him to get out. He gets upset and starts shouting – what an ungrateful old bloke!



Asien 1972-73
Driving towards Aschur, we gave a lift to this Turkoman, with his sheep and bags of cheese. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Stuck in sand
Back at our usual campsite, our van gets thoroughly stuck in soft sand. After several hours, and a great deal of digging, we finally manage to get it out, shortly before dark.

A couple of days later, I want to drive into the mountains to learn, how far spring has advanced there by now. Once again, the car gets stuck in sand, but is pulled out by a passing tractor. A short distance further on, I feel that something is wrong. One of the rear wheels has become very hot. I presume that the brake was stuck, and continue on my way. Then I hear an ominous cracking sound from the wheel, and oil starts dripping out.

Quite depressed, I walk back to our campsite to fetch Arne (who is a mechanic), and we walk back to the car. He is of the opinion that one of the bearings has cracked. Very slowly, we drive back to camp. The following morning, we drive at a snail’s pace to Aschur, luckily without further mishap. There is no mechanic here, so we must take the ferry across the strait to the town of Bandar Shah. By now it is late in the day, and we stop at the roadside to spend the night here. A boy keeps us company, and we record his songs on our tape recorder. Two soldiers approach us, but, as it turns out, they don’t intend to bother us – on the contrary, they hand us two fish as a gift!



Asien 1972-73
This boy kept us company, and we recorded his songs on our tape recorder. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



A Russian mechanic
By now the wheel is fairly loose, and, at a snail’s pace, we drive through Bandar Shah. We ask a man to show us the way to a repair shop, and after looking at the wheel he laughs and moves his behind from side to side. However, we don’t find the situation quite as comical as he does. Soon we find the repair shop, where we meet the owner, a small, powerfully built man, who, as it turns out, is a fugitive from Russian Armenia. His name is Yasha, and he speaks Russian, Farsi, and Turkomani, but no English. However, that’s hardly necessary to understand our problem.

Unfortunately, the damage is greater than we expected. One bearing and a cog-wheel is broken. We are told to go to the town of Gorgan, 50 kilometres away, to get spare parts. We board a dilapidated bus, and apparently the greatest passion of the driver is racing. He drives like a madman along the tarmac road, which is full of potholes. Surprisingly, we are still alive, when we reach Gorgan. Here we hire a taxi to the spare part shop, and, since the taxi driver is also a madman, we arrive there within five minutes. The clerk in the shop informs us that, unfortunately, they don’t have the required spare parts in stock – these must be ordered from far-away Tehran. The parts are quite expensive, and we cannot afford to buy all of them. We must file down the cog-wheel – and hope for a little luck. We are told that the spare parts will arrive in four or five days.



Asien 1972-73
Russian mechanic Yasha (left) with friends, gathered around their tea and a gurgling waterpipe, Bandar Shah. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Party despite mishap
Back in Bandar Shah we ask Yasha, if we can spend the night in our van. He readily agrees to this. I want to clean the two fish we got from the policemen, to start preparing our dinner, but I am stopped by Yasha, who calls one of his mechanics and orders him to clean the fish for us. We now learn that Yasha is a master chef: fried fish and fresh bread, served with two bottles of vodka that seem to appear out of nowhere. The vodka is not very tasty, but as we drink it the Russian way, bottoms up, we don’t really taste it – but I can assure you that we feel the effect! Later we eat rice and kebab, and we start feeling quite good. When the mechanics have left for their home, we enter our car to sleep – which is not easy as it is slanting quite a lot, one side jacked up.

We spend the following days in the company of Yasha and his staff. His friends Ali and Albert work in a bank and speak a bit of English. Even though their friend Yasha is a mechanic, their cars are old wrecks. The gear box makes ominous sounds, and the fan belt is in shreds, but such petty things are not important, as long as the car is able to move.

We make friends with the men, and they take very good care of us indeed. We eat, talk, and go on picnic trips into the mountains, bringing lunch and beer along. They also want to give us money, but, naturally, we refuse to accept it. There must be a limit! Yasha, learning that Arne is a mechanic, wants him to become his partner in the work shop, but Arne declines. “What will happen to my friend, if I stay here?” he says, pointing at me. Yasha looks at me for a moment and then says: “Teacher!” In his opinion, this is a suitable job for me in Bandar Shah.

Finally, the spare parts arrive, and the mechanics set to work. It is now late in the day, and Ali is of the opinion that we should have a farewell party. Albert is not able to participate. “He is afraid of his woman,” says Ali, who is unmarried. Fried fish and vodka – we are not quite sober, but, nevertheless, we manage to say that we would now like to pay for the work. Yasha blankly refuses to accept any payment – we only have to pay the spare parts!

The following morning, we’re a bit sad to leave our friends. As it turns out, after paying the spare parts, we have so little money left that we shall have to abandon our plan to go to Afghanistan. The filed-down cog-wheel still produces an ominous sound, but the arrangement seems to work, as long as we drive slowly. So, slowly, we head back west towards the Elburz Mountains and Tehran.



Asien 1972-73
We went on picnic trips into the mountains, bringing lunch and beer along. Here we are seated on a bench in the mountains near Gorgan, from left Arne, Ali, myself, and Albert. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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