Following Freya | Octane Press

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Following Freya

Excerpt from Revolutionary Ride by Lois Pryce

In 2011, at the height of tension between the British and Iranian governments, travel writer Lois Pryce found a note from an unknown Persian man left on her motorcycle outside the Iranian Embassy in London, asking that she journey to his hometown to find out what Iran is really like. So, to everyone's surprise, she went. The following is an excerpt from her book Revolutionary Ride, recounting her experiences in this sometimes intimidating, always fascinating country.

Tehran was a ride of about 400 miles from Tabriz, but before I plunged into the chaos of the capital I was keen to explore the northern shores of Iran, along the Caspian Sea, and then make my way to Tehran across the Alborz Mountains. This narrow but formidable range ran between the coastal strip and Iran’s central plateau, stretching all the way from the borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan in the north-west to Turkmenistan and Afghanistan in the east, and had long held a fascination for me, inspired by The Valleys of the Assassins, Freya Stark’s travelogue of her adventures in this region in the 1930s.

A refreshingly sparsely trafficked highway transported me out of Iran’s north-western provinces, passing through barren, mountainous country. It was good to be moving again, back on the bike and easing into the familiar rhythms of life on the road. My jumping off point for the coast and the mountains was Qazvin, a bright, busy town where I was able to hole up in a slightly shabby 1970s hotel on the main street and roam with unusual anonymity, the residents seemingly distracted by a non-stop frenzy of commerce and socialising. Neon flashed outside my window, restaurants pumped out smoky meat smells accompanied by tinkly muzak versions of forbidden western easy-listening hits, and multistorey shopping centres stayed open later than I could stay awake. Women cloaked in black chadors window-shopped at boutiques offering surprisingly risqué clothing, pointing out lacy mini-dresses and tight, low-cut tops to their friends. Across the street, men, women and children alike clustered outside high-end electronics stores to admire displays of giant Samsung flat-screen televisions and, of course, the new iPhone 5, a contender for Iran’s hot topic of the moment, only narrowly beaten by President Rouhani’s historic UN talks, which were taking place in New York and gracing all the front pages on the news-stands.

While the inhabitants of Qazvin salivated over Apple products, I spent the evening in more analogue pursuits, poring over my maps and route-planning the next part of my journey. In the morning I was heading north out of town, taking the smaller roads that would lead me into the Alborz Mountains, following, quite literally in the footsteps of Freya Stark. In 1930 she had walked from Qazvin along the same route I was to take now, charting the route and terrain as she travelled. Her journey had been a daring expedition to discover the ruined fortress of Alamut Castle, the former headquarters of the ancient Ismaili sect, better known as the Assassins, who had broken away from mainstream Islam and dominated this region under a reign of terror in the eleventh century. Legend had it that this cult had acquired their name from their ruthless leader’s tactic of getting his followers stoned before encouraging them to murder top political and religious leaders with trippy, weed-induced promises of a paradise full of nubile young maidens in exotic gardens. These bloodthirsty stoners lapped it up and soon became known as the Hashishiyun, named after their drug of choice, and giving root to the English word, assassin.

The Alborz Mountains were less intimidating to the traveller these days, but they still held plenty of thrills and a certain amount of foreboding. Their valleys were cavernous and isolated, their peaks and passes high and snow-covered with only small villages dotted here and there. Once over the other side I would descend to the shores of the Caspian Sea, which sounded impossibly romantic, although this image was based on no more than a childhood spent reading C. S. Lewis books. I had very little idea of what to expect from the Caspian, but I am always drawn to water of any kind, and the idea of an Iranian corniche was exotic and exciting. As Robert Louis Stevenson famously put it, I was travelling hopefully, which he also claimed was better than arriving. I would only find out if he was right once I set eyes on the sea itself.

I had already learned that, if possible, loading and prepping the bike was best done somewhere quiet and out of sight, before embarking on the tedious dressing-up game known only to the visiting female motorcyclist in Iran. Islamic clothing laws require not only women’s hair to be covered but also the supposedly irresistible curves of hips, bums and thighs, meaning I had to wear my manteau along with my regular bike gear. Combining the practicalities of motorcycle clothing with the impracticalities of Muslim modesty was turning out to be a challenge and my look resembled the end result of a game of picture consequences – a confused mishmash made up of my vintage Belstaff jacket over a shapeless denim dress, itself worn over a pair of faded jeans tucked into my tan leather Frye boots. In my jacket pocket I kept my headscarf, a white chiffon affair that when swapped with my helmet only added to the bizarre get-up, resulting in something that could loosely be described as Steve McQueen meets Benazir Bhutto in Laurel Canyon circa 1972. It wasn’t my finest sartorial hour, but hopefully it would keep the ‘morality police’ at bay.

My exit from Qazvin aroused the usual flurry of excitement and enthusiasm from fellow road users. Horns blasted in greeting, rather than the fury one automatically assumes as a Londoner. A blur of waving hands and encouraging thumbs appeared from every car window and at junctions I found myself constantly and regrettably turning down offers of hospitality.

‘Madam! Do you need any help in Iran?’ called one gentleman from his car.

‘Very good! Very good!’ shouted a woman from a passenger seat, leaning across her husband to beep the horn repeatedly, while he grinned like a madman and swerved all over the road.

‘Please, drink tea,’ insisted an elderly man at a hardware store on the outskirts of town, where I stopped to buy some oil. The tray, sugar cubes and tiny glasses appeared from nowhere.

It was hard to get going in Iran, with so much bonhomie and ta’arof, and I forced myself to resist my compulsive white-line fever. But it wasn’t always easy to be in the present moment, and as I exchanged pleasantries with the owner of the hardware shop my attention was wandering ahead of me, to the mountains, to the changing autumnal weather that was turning more ominous with every minute, and to the usual concerns of the itinerant motorcyclist; where will I sleep tonight, where will I find fuel, what will I eat? I pushed these irritating thoughts out of my mind and brought myself back to the now, trying to remember to let the trip happen to me, rather than attempting to control every detail. ‘One can only really travel if one lets oneself go and takes what every place brings without trying to turn it into a private pattern of one’s own.’ Freya Stark had penned these words of wisdom so many decades ago, and I wondered if she had struggled with the same conundrum on this very road.

Read the whole account of Lois' adventure in her book Revolutionary Ride, available now!
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