Suleyman the Terrible
Marand – Tabriz
In the outskirts of Marand, we were stopped by the secret police (we think). A man in a car followed us and stopped us. Two other men were already standing nearby and moved closer as he started to fire questions at us in perfect English. How many days have you been in Iran? What is your planned route? Where are you planning to spend the night? How are you finding the Iranian people? How do you justify your statement that the Iranian people are friendly people? I am Iranian, how do you know I am friendly? What is your evidence for this? ||
Guy did his best to answer all questions which seemed to satisfy (Freddie was ignored in this exchange, being a woman) as we were eventually released, while the man briefed the other two men in Farsi. Unfortunately it was quite late by now and starting to get dark as we cycled into town. No problem, we thought, we are in the town now and will easily find a hotel. However, the town was a lot bigger than expected, and we asked for directions several times. At one point we followed some guys on a motorbike through the rush hour traffic, until they eventually pointed up a hill saying the hotel is 5km out of town. By then we had done 105km, it was dark and we were knackered. A crowd was forming around us, and the consensus was that the hotel up the hill was the only one suitable for foreigners. There was another option in town, but it would be too dirty. We were happy with a bit of dirt but did not want to face the traffic in town again, and besides the hotel was in the direction we needed to go the next day anyway, so we continued up the hill, expecting to pay over the odds for quite a fancy hotel.
It was only about 6pm, but it was pitch black by now, there was no hard shoulder to ride on, and the traffic coming out of town was very busy. Eventually there were no more buildings and we thought we might have missed the hotel. We stopped to reconfirm directions at a construction site. By now we were really fed up with the traffic and cycling uphill in the dark, and we tentatively asked if we might be able to camp at the site.
The night guard at the building site pointed to the empty guard house and offered for us to sleep in there. This was perfect! We put the bikes in and he invited us to a construction site container to have tea. He seemed to be the most hospitable guy, getting out bread, cheese and cucumbers for us, making sure we were comfortable and keeping the tea topped up. We decided to cook dinner there and made spaghetti with tuna sauce. Suleyman, the guard, ate with us and we were having a great time. He was learning English words and we were learning Farsi words, and it was all good fun. Suleyman also pointed to himself explaining he was from “Kurdistan! PKK!”. This worried us a little as we thought we were finally out of PKK territory now… At the same time we were happy to experience some genuine Kurdish hospitality after our mixed experiences in the Kurdish area of Turkey. Eventually a friend arrived and had some tea with us, then it was time for bed. Our dishes were kept in the container and it was decided that they would be washed in the morning.
Suleyman took us back to the guard house, pointed to some blankets we could use to sleep on and gave us a bag of potato crisps. He explained that he would sleep in Marand tonight and come back at 7am the next morning. And then in the dark of the night, with just a silhouette of Suleyman showing he motioned that we would give him Dollars. Dollars?!
We were disappointed and annoyed. He had not indicated at all that he expected us to pay for sleeping here. We had had such a good time together, we thought we were friends! Suleyman turned to leave. But hang on – how many dollars? He did not understand our question, but we insisted and gave him a note pad to write down how much he wanted. He got very nervous and disappeared across the street with our notepad while we paced around in the dark guard house, considering our options. When he came back, someone had written on the notepad “mani gevmi” – aha, “give me money”. Still no amount, and finally he understood and asked for $10. We offered $5, he accepted and turned to leave. He explained that he would lock the guard house so we were “safe”. We were very uncomfortable with this and asked for the key, but he insisted he had to keep the key, and suddenly he closed the door, locked it from the outside and left us all alone in the dark. We knew that in an emergency we could get out of the window, but it was not practical with the bikes, and we could not face packing up again and getting out into the traffic looking for the hotel. Besides, Suleyman still had our non-stick frying pan. So we stayed.
We made our bed on the upstairs floor and tried to get some sleep. However as night set in our fears and paranoia began to fester. We started to worry that Suleyman might not be happy with our offer of $5 and might come back with his PKK cronies. He had betrayed us and we did not trust him anymore. We decided we should probably prepare for the worst so we did what any rational mind would do: we armed ourselves. Our primary weapon is our pepper spray, Freddie could conceal this in her headscarf and whip it out at a moment’s notice. Next we had a small pocket knife, which at times struggled to negotiate crusty bread but it would have to do. We settled down on our mats, wide-eyed, listening intently to the faintest of noises.
A little while later, we heard a muttering of voices downstairs, and a small stone knock against the upstairs windows. Our hearts skipped a beat, Suleyman and the PKK had come for us!
We peered out from the upstairs window, there were three men milling around outside and calling out to us. Here we go – time to fight!
Half asleep we decided we should first dress and prepare for battle. Guy was frantic as he couldn’t find his cycling shorts but soon realised was not entirely necessary for battle. Freddie couldn’t decipher whose shirt was whose and inadvertently had Guy’s shirt on and then panicked when she couldn’t find her head scarf – what if she ran out on the street without it, would she get arrested?
During the mist of the the confusion and panic Guy had a thought.
“Shall we try to talk to them?” Ok, that’s a great idea, diplomacy first! So we opened the window, and Guy stuck his head out.
Trying to act as casual as possible Guy enquired as to the nature of their visit.
Robbery, kidnap, torture, theft…
The men were calling “Suleyman, Suleyman” and making gestures indicating food. They were just looking for Suleyman to have some food together! Relieved, Guy explained that Suleyman was in Marand, and the men thanked us and left.
We lay down our weapons, had a laugh over our stupidity and slept soundly, content that we would soon be reunited with out non stick frying pan.
At 7am, Suleyman, looking a little sheepish, turned up and unlocked us from our prison. He was acting friendly as ever and nothing in his behaviour indicated the awkward situation from the previous evening. He invited us back into the container for tea. The only reason we accepted was because of our frying pan. So we went in for a quick tea. Suleyman then brought out bread for us and started making omelettes. We needed something for breakfast anyway, so we ate with him keeping one eye on him at all time. He made us a packed lunch, did our dishes and generally clowned around a lot. We were not sure if he was feeling guilty for the way he had treated us the previous night, or because he wanted to make an effort so that we would give him more money. Eventually we decided to give him $10 because of all the food he had given us, and were relieved when we finally left the place.
We had got ourselves into a tricky situation by underestimating how difficult it could be to find a hotel in the town. We don’t think Suleyman had any worse intentions than trying to make a few bucks from the passing tourists, and to be fair he did work hard for his $10. In the future, we would have to be more cautious and make sure we found a place to sleep well before dark. Often we have a split second decision to make - do we trust this person? From this situation we have learnt to avoid making such decision when it’s dark and you can’t get a proper feel for the situation.
We were really tired from all the entertainment of the previous night and to make matters worse, there was no hard shoulder to ride on for most of the day, and the traffic was still extremely busy. A van driver cheered us up by giving us some yoghurt, and later a young guy presented us with an apple and some iced water.
Finally the sprawl of Tabriz appeared, and coming into the city centre we instantly felt comfortable. The city has almost a cosmopolitan feel to it with leafy boulevards, coffee shops and pizza restaurants. We got a little lost at first, but eventually found a hotel that Jay had recommended to us, which was really good value and also had a kitchen that we could use.
Tabriz has a population of almost 2 million and a strong university presence. 70% of the population of Iran is under 30 years of age, so there are young people everywhere (contraception was illegal in the 1980s…). It’s a lovely town with lots of parks and gardens and a truly amazing bazaar. We saw a very different side to Iran in Tabriz, and one that we really liked. Exploring the colourful bazaar we quickly made new friends, and it was lovely to see a modern city after the depressing villages and crumbling industries we had passed in our first few days. It certainly wasn’t love at first sight, but slowly we were starting to really appreciate Iran.