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).
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.
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).
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!
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!
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.
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.