Rory Stewart

All afternoon I watched three shadows moving beneath us. Mine in front, Akbar’s at the rear and between us the mule’s: its shadow legs, twenty feet long, jerking like a spider’s over the glowing thorn scrub. I felt happiest in the afternoons. The flat glare of noon had gone but the day was not yet over. Staring at that shadow image of our motion and our isolation on the 7000-foot ridgeline, I said: ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’

‘Not for me.’


Akbar did not reply. He often didn’t reply.

I hadn’t imagined that I would have Akbar with me when I crossed Iran. I planned to walk around the world, a journey which seemed to me to be very simple. I was able to explain it to my five-year-old godson and he said he would follow me on a map. I left my job and travelled on three dollars a day, like a backpacker. But I thought that my slow pace and physical contact with the ground would help me understand the Asian landscape better. Since I would be moving at an archaic speed on old pilgrimage and trade routes, or passes used by Alexander, and sleeping in remote villages, often inaccessible to cars, I hoped to develop a different view of local cultures from other travellers. I was also interested in what two years walking on my own would do to the way I thought.

An Iranian official met me at the Turkish border and said: ‘It is forbidden to walk across Iran.’

‘But you can hitchhike, ride or cycle.’

‘Yes, but you cannot walk.’

We debated the subject for a week and they finally agreed that I could walk, on condition that I took a Government escort. Akbar is older than me. He is half a civil servant and half a climber: he has reached the summit of Everest. But he was not a guide because he did not know the way and he was not quite a companion because he walked a hundred yards in front of or behind me. I suspect he hated the walk. His Iranian gym shoes, with the label ‘Nike by Ralph Lauren’, rubbed his feet raw. He never complained but in the evenings I saw him trying various homeopathic remedies. He soaked his feet in henna until they were dyed purple. I can only guess why the Government wanted him with me but we spent every night together and he shaped my understanding of the journey. He often repeated the phrase: ‘Iranians are famous for their hospitality and generosity.’

In the course of three months we were differently mistrusted almost every night in every village. Villagers assumed that, as strangers on foot, we were dangerous men. So did the police. Sometimes we concealed Akbar’s Government credentials, sometimes we emphasised them, but neither approach seemed to overcome the hostility. People often said that his identity card and my passport were forgeries. Nobody believed I was a foreigner. They thought I was only pretending to speak bad Farsi. Their fears are a reflection of the violence of the Iranian countryside. A man from the north-east told us that four hundred Afghans with automatic weapons had kidnapped his father from his village a few months before and only released him for a ransom of a thousand dollars.

Many villagers assumed that we were smuggling drugs. One man, who offered us opium before dinner, said that in his village 70 per cent of the men and women smoked between two and twelve grams a day. He blamed the problem on British sales of opium in the 19th century. The more aggressive aspects of the Government’s anti-narcotics campaign have terrified villagers and some would not sell us bread because they were afraid they would be arrested for aiding drug-smugglers.

What we were accused of most often was digging for archaeological treasures on a nearby tumulus, or in the village cemetery. A week after we left one village our host was arrested and charged with helping us look for ancient bronzes. This is a common activity. The last grave robbers in his village had turned up in police uniform. South of Lake Ormieh we climbed through a cave in which a Tehran gangster was found dead from methane asphyxiation earlier in the year. He had been tunnelling in secret for ten months, hoping to find Scythian gold.

In one cemetery we visited, every gravestone had been smashed. Among the mounds of earth were large stone rams and tigers, lying on their sides. One of the rams had a bow and a quiver of arrows carved on its back. ‘These probably date from before Islam,’ I said to Akbar. There was a rifle carved on the other side.

A group of four men had been slowly walking towards us and, as they reached us, the leader, eyes heavy with opium, shouted in Farsi: ‘You have come here to rob the graves. You are grave robbers. I will not let you take this gold. It is for us. If anyone digs here it is us. I will call the police. Give me your ID card.’

We ignored them and went back to get the mule before leaving the village. The men followed us shouting for a hundred yards and then disappeared. As we walked up the mud-slurry of the village streets, people stopped talking. I saw women staring at us through half-closed courtyard doors. One by one, they slammed the metal gates shut as we approached. A group of young men, pressing themselves against a wall as the mule and the saddlebags squeezed past, stared into my eyes unblinking. When I was ten yards down the street one muttered: ‘Kurdish smugglers, bringing things from Iraq.’

It is not the pessimism of these assumptions, or even what follows from them, that I found unsettling. It is particularly hard to define yourself when you have no fixed relationships. To be an Afghan drug dealer one day and a Kurdish freedom fighter the next (not just in idle fantasy but all the way to the police station) troubled me.

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