At the hotel that morning I met Swiss German guy Steven over an omelette brekkie who was cycling from his home to Tibet. He had spent 3 months in Turkey and now had a 3 month visa for Iran which he had picked up easily, cant be bad. I was a little late finding a bus to Zanjan but being en route to Tehran at least they were frequent. I noticed how some of the people had a more yellowish hue to their skin here. Whilst the Chador is mandatory most women wear it open faced, they might only wrap it around their face to beat the cold, quite understandable and you were almost jealous that they could. Many of the young ones choose to be daring enough to show a bit of hair and cover it with a bright headscarf or suitably fashionable atire. A short version of the Chador and jeans is quite acceptable. The rabble of a bus crew chanced their arm in hanging around for more passengers and there was an open revolt on board to get going or else, they eventually did when some particularly spirited old codgers in front of me threatened to get off! Winding through snowy hills, animal fodder could be seen piled high on rooftops. I hadnt expected such wilderness on this route but though desertified in parts it was like the highlands at their finest and we still encroached into gorges with tunnels at times. The powdering of snow on the northern slopes completed the picture, and so we left Turkic speaking East Azerbayjan province. At a roadstop restaurant in Miyaneh I had to ask what town it was, and I noticed they had different rice in this country, I much preferred the Turkish variety. I also saw small little plastic "prayer boxes" for sale, which incorporated a pop out compass used no doubt to indicate East or Mecca, the mini cake of earth or whatever which you found in every hotel room, and what I could only guess was a rotary calendar or star guide indicator but could have been anything. I even wondered if the compasses had been polarised East-West? I had also noticed by now that every town had an amusement park, usually with the Ferris Wheel set on a hilltop. That was about as far as you were allowed to stray from Allah in the Islamic Republic. I hadnt seen any roadblocks so far but after Miyaneh a lone traffic cop stood outside a police station and the driver seemed to go there to get a stamp or something. The police here wear oversized Soviet style red and white peaked caps, quite ridiculous.
After a long tunnel the mountains crescendoed and were replaced by a plain with the railway running alongside and an old broken bridge straddling the river. There were very contrasting desert hills now, looking like solid sand dunes. Jumbo jets trailing contrails could be seen to be going over all the time, it reminded me of my trip to Oz when the whole of Iran had been obscured by cloud.
I found my hotel straight off the bus and was fortunate again in that though the resident guys didnt have any English beyond "I love you", Dariush who worked in his fathers hardware shop next door had popped in. He had studied English and though devoid of practice he jumped at the chance of inviting me next door and lunging into an unscheduled tirade on the local political situation. Tired as I was, I was interested and so found myself scribbling frantically as he explained all about the Turkic suppression in Azerbayjan. He told me that 5 months ago in a student demonstration 90 had been killed and 200 jailed, including his pal. He wondered if the world knew about it and wanted me to spread the word.
It all stemmed from one of those quirks of history, Greater Azerbayjan was only split in 2 a hundred or so years ago and though the north had its new found independence controlled from Baku, the southern capital Tabriz had been sidestepped by Persian domination. In a fight for regional autonomy 60 years ago, in what Dariush called the Peshawari movement, 350,000 were killed and it struck a chord with the plight of the Kurds in Turkey. Under Iranian law, the study of minority languages is illegal and there was no Turkic (Azeri) speaking TV. Though there were newspapers written in old Turkic with Arabic script, he had no comprehension of it due to the study ban and neither was he permitted to study modern Turkish in its Latin script. His wife had just fallen pregnant and Dariush had already disagreed with her over which language they should bring the kid up in, he was for Turkic of course. Strangely, Ayatollah Khameini was Turkic, from just outside Tabriz.
Dariush showed me he was actually in the middle of writing to President Ahmedinejad, and I queried him whether he wasnt afraid of police recrimination. He just wanted to continue lambasting though, all the industry went to Tehran too he complained and local unemployment was high. He blamed this in turn for the high incidence of theft in town. Having got that little lot off his chest he showed me his passport which stipulated that he could not go to Israel, and then he wanted my opinions on Islam. I gave it to him straight, ditto Christianity and the others too, I just hoped he wasnt secret police or a secret fundamentalist!
Zanjan turned out to be more of a city than a town with some notable mosques. I had the usual hunt for non-existent restaurants and net cafes before settling for an unusual fish sandwich in a joint which proferred fluorescent yellow noodles, pale yellow sheeps brain, wafer thin hamburgers and chopped frankfurters in tomato sauce, bizarre.