Sunday, June 25, 2006

Gone Bad?

One of the advantages of travelling by bus is that one sees how landscapes gradually, or abruptly, change. As one heads west from Mashhad the landscape becomes greener with gently rolling hills. This is the Turkmen Sahra, home to most of Iran's Turkmen minority. Only a hundred years ago the Turkmen were mostly nomadic, riding their horses across the wide steppes, but they have settled down now and ride motorbikes instead, although they have retained much of their separate culture: they still speak their own language, they're generally Sunni rather than Shi'ite, and the women usually wear large, brightly patterned headscarves and colourful dresses rather than the dour black of the Shi'ite majority. One of the main towns in the area is Gonbad-e Kavus, known locally as plain Gonbad, though the place is much nicer than the name might suggest. The town is home to the eponymous gonbad (gonbad means dome or domed structure) after which it it is named. Built 1000 years ago as a mausoleum for the local ruler entirely out of brick, it is perhaps the world's first skyscraper, measuring some 55m from its base to its tip. The gonbad held my interest for a whole 10 minutes before I set off to find what else the town had to offer. I knew that there was an old defensive wall, called Alexander’s Wall (though it has nothing to do with Alexander the Great, having been built around 0 A.D., or is that B.C.?) that was built to keep out the barbarian hordes, somewhere close to town. The first person I asked said he was driving out that way and offered me a lift, but warned me that I might be disappointed. And he wasn't wrong. Even though it is the second longest defensive wall in the world, if you don't know what it is Alexander's Wall is little more than a long dike and hard to distinguish from the surrounding land because so much of it has been cannibalised for construction materials by the locals . But I didn't mind too much as my lift dropped me off at some friends of his who run a telephone taxi service who found me far more entertaining than doing any work. So I spent the whole day with Jalal and co. who found it far more worth their while chatting with me and feeding me than actually doing any work (Ring! Ring! "What? You want a taxi? Sorry, all our drivers are out. Goodbye." "So, Erik, you were telling us about the girls in your country..."). I ended up spending the entire day and night with the fun guys at their "office", smoking, sleeping, eating and talking about Iran and other countries before leaving the next morning towards Tehran, home and a hot shower.

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