Soon the plateau began to change. No longer rolling hills and rocky terrain I now walked towards daunting peaks. I had begun to enter the Zagros Mountains. People don't often think of Iran as being one of the most mountainous countries on earth, but it is - and this range is one of the reasons why. Stretching from the far northwest corner to its southeast, the Zagros are more than 1500 kilometers in length and hundreds of kilometers wide. As I trudged deeper into the mountains, my camps began to get cold. Sleep was fitful on the hard ground in spite of my mat.
Walking into the city of Esfahan I passed petro-chemical plants and factories belching out fluorescent orange smoke. Despite this less than auspicious welcome, it was a beautiful city with welcoming inhabitants. Still, I manged to get caught up in a large and somewhat threatening demonstration that took place outside my cheap hotel. To counter the large and increasingly regular anti-government gatherings, the regime had begun to fight back by organizing their own. One such crowd that had gathered at one end of the Si-O-Seh Bridge was rapidly growing in size and becoming rather vocal. Advice from Iranian friends had been to avoid these get-togethers. I sat on the other side of the river and filmed from afar, watching as the crowd grew to a number nearing 100,000 people. After an hour or so I wanted to return to my room to unload some kit and, as the mob looked there to stay, I headed back to my hotel, where I was happy to discover that I had a bird's eye view of the proceedings.
Stealthily, I hung my Sony HD cam out the window, scanning the thousands below, who had by now begun to march down the street. As the tail end milled past, I saw several military and police vehicles following, as well as men in uniform. Not wishing to attract interest I thought it wise to finish taking my snap shots. As I did so, a man dressed in civilian clothes looked straight up at me, and made what appeared to be a signal to two nearby companions while speaking into a lapel microphone. I watched in horror as they disappeared under an awning and headed straight for the front doors of the hotel. This was unreal! A shot of adrenalin hit my stomach. What should I do? They would be knocking down my door any minute. I removed the memory card from my DSLR, shoved it into a pocket of my trekking pants and buried them deep at the bottom of my pack. My HD cam recorded direct to a built-in hard drive. It was brilliant to use but meant all I could do was delete the footage I had taken of the demonstration. I fumbled with the touch screen. Done. I jumped on my bed and feigned reading a book. Any second they would burst in. I waited. Nothing. I waited some more. Twenty minutes past and I was still pretending to read. Now I was just annoyed. Why weren't they coming to get me? I decided to go out to grab some dinner. I took a small folded piece of paper and jammed it in the door as I left. I felt just like Jason Bourne. When I returned later in the evening the paper fell to the floor as I opened the door.
Fear and loathing in the Zagros
I trekked on through the Zagros, camping on snow-covered fields, in decaying outbuildings and on massive, soft carpets in the homes of gracious hosts who I had met on the road. For a few days I hung in the town of Yasuj with a couple of electronica-listening, cocaine-smoking locals. Hassan and his friend were typical of many of the small-town, 20-something Iranian males I had met: no full-time work, lacking money and much hope to improve their lot for the future. I met them when I was first walking into town. Reminiscent of the hospitality I had been encountering throughout the country, they pulled up beside me in Hassan's car (a battered old Paykan with BMW insignia emblazoned wherever possible) and offered to drive me to wherever I needed to go.
At night we cruised the streets, wolf whistling at girls and blasting dance music from the car's sound system, all the while keeping a careful eye out for police. During the day they would pass a joint around, but the evenings called for harder drugs. We sat on a rubbish-strewn side street and I watched as the boys smoked Cocaina or cocaine, burning the drug on aluminum foil and inhaling through a rolled piece of paper. Drug use in Iran is on the increase despite the penalty of death for trafficking and jail for use. The country's geographic location puts it squarely on the supply line between Afghanistan's opium fields in the east and the steppingstone to Europe, Turkey, in the west. Iranian NGOs report that as many as 2 million addicts can found in Iran, a figure the government disputes. And it's not just opium. Cocaine (as I found), ecstasy and MDMA are frequently being used by a young population, like Hassan and his friend, disaffected by the state of Iran's economy and opportunities for advancement. But my time with these guys wasn't only spent watching them do drugs. I spent precious moments in their homes drinking endless cups of tea, meeting their families and watching their day-to-day lives unfold. Theirs was a sense of happiness tinged with desperation, and it tore at me to see them wasting away.
This is part 3 in a 4 part series.
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