2010. augusztus 9., hétfő

iranian camel business and industrial tourism

Iran - The invention of real industrial tourism

Crazy camel transfer by four Europeans

I’m absolutely sure that Ardakan has witnessed the birth of a new legend (and I’m not referring to Khatami now…). First, we have invented the notion of industrial desert camel trekking, which had been practically nonexistent before. Second, we managed to cause quite an upheaval when we – a Dutchman, a Swiss, a Russian and a Hungarian – emerged from the desert with a camel and a mountain sheperd dog as white as snow.

I reckon the story will be more clear if I start with the latter. Thinking about the preceding events, I’m sure of it.

We arrived to Yazd free of any touristic responsibilities. Since I had spent a whole month there before, I did not have to stress myself out about missing anything important. But, thanks to my friend Sebastian, who has been living there for four years, I managed to find something new right on our first night. Namely, it turned out that there is some kind of amusement park in the outskirts of town which is very funny through European eyes. Gokart court, luminous fake cactuses, blood pressure monitor and a fantastic fake river with fake waterfall right in the middle of the desert. The Persians seemingly don’t give a damn about the ugly-looking drain that carries the water up to the hill, they just enjoy the benefits of the cooling water falling down.

The next day we were up to some more serious business, and went to see a desert cave. One can get there through a canyon-like gullet. At first we couldn’t find it, as we went out to the desert only by feel with the huge Nissan Patrol. Then we found a gullet. We had a really hard time getting the car down, and got stuck in the porous gravel. We weren’t equipped for an adventure like that, so we had to dig the car out with our own hands, but didn’t succeed. At last we lifted up the back wheel with the erector, and rolled some rocks under it. In the canyon we found the gullet leading to the cave. Don’t think of anything exotic. Some locals know the place, and go there regularly to have picnic and smoke opium. They had also built a kitchen in the cave, and just like other Iranian picnic-sites it is full of rubbish. There is water dripping into a pool from the rock wall and one can drink from that. After an hour we got bored of it all, went back to Yazd, and started laying the basis of our surreal andventures of the upcoming few days.

A year ago Sebastian bought a camel. Fortunately it is of the the smaller kind that doesn’t grow bigger as time goes by. Being a wild animal, it had been forced to do different acts through beating, in accordance with the country’s camel keeping traditions. We named the project ’sleeping under the free sky desert tour’, to which Stefan, the Swiss, Sebastian, the Dutch and myself lent our names. Then, on the previous night we also took in Roman, the Russian into partnership. Our goal was to transfer the camel from Ardakan to a farm called Haft-a Dor, which lies some 25-40 kms from there (the name means ’Seven Pearls’in Persian – a perfect brand name for luxury goods, which I would surely make into a registered trademark if I ever needed one), and is a goddamn fucked up place in the desert. This needed to be done so that the camel could leave the closed Ardakan pomegranate garden and find a new home in the desert where it can be relatively free and make friends with other camels – you know, the camel is a social animal, just like man.

The enterprise was with no doubt adventurous, unpredictable and difficult, full of insecurities – a real mission impossible by European standards, or, if not completely impossible, then completely unplannable. First of all, we had no map. What’s more, the Internet connection had broken down the previous night, so we coludn’t check the details of our trip on Google Earth. As a result, we didn’t know the exact distance. We didn’t know how long our trip would take. We didn’t know what we would find once we reached our destination. And, on top of all these, we didn’t know how the camel would take all these, as well as how we ourselves would cope with walking in the unbearable heat. We knew only one thing: that we would have to walk parallel with the main road, as this way we could at least eliminate the possibility of getting lost.

There was only one problem with the distance: Iranians are not too good at estimating. Five minutes can be an hour, one kilometre can be two (or four) kiolmetres, four hours walk can take three or six hours, and right is sometimes left. In the desert, accompanied by a wild camel, these things do matter. For our team to be complete, we took Sebastian’s dog, Belle with us, whom he brought from Azerbaijan – first and foremost to walk him and make sure he doesn’t get lost while we are away.

On the way to Arkadan we popped in to a grocery and bought 27 kilograms of rotten watermelons, in order to fill up the camel’s belly, so that she would take the difficulties that lie ahead of us a bit more easily. When we reached Ardakan, the camel man was nowhere. For an hour we just wandered around in the endless pomegranate and pistachio plantation, until we got bored of it and climbed through the gate. That was the time I first laid eyes on Camille, the two-year-old, dark brown camel with moulting hair, who was to make the upcoming days unforgettable. In order for her to be more well-mannered and tractable, they had laced a piece of string through her nose, that got infected and was bleeding, and she got agressive every time someone touched it. We fed her all the 27 kilograms of watermelon, which was approximatley 10% of her body weight. This didn’t prevent her to prey on our bread as soon as she was finished with that – we could barely kick her off it. Talking about bread, I have to add that we bought three kilograms of dried bread, to have enough snack for the trip. It was an Ardakan speciality that lasts for years. On the outside it resembles crisps more than anything else. In its original form its a flat, scone-like thing that they dry out completely and crush into little pieces so that it can be transported in any kind of vessel – be it your pocket or a large barrel. To add some flavour to it, they bake all kinds of seeds into it. Camille loved it, or, more precisely, she would have loved it, had we let her to.

The minute we got her off the rope, she got mad. She went completely berserk: she kicked, jumped around, we could barely calm her down. Before all this, we had received a little training in what not to do to her, just in case. The most important thing is that one shouldn’t walk directly before the camel, because if anything upsets or terrifies it and it goes wild, it starts running forward, and crushes everything smaller than a plateau truck. That’s why it is more adviseable to always walk next to it.

It’s easy to see the difference between the heavy-handed cameldriving methods of traditional camelkeeping folks and the humanistic-liberal attitude of Europeans. Our cameleer tried to exert pressure on the animal with a big rod, while Sebastian tried to persuade him to stop doing it. Finally, we chose a third approach, and decided to calm the camel down, whispering to her ear and stroking her – which, to our surpirise, worked really well, as she gradually got more and mor relaxed. The method wasn’t perfect, but way more effective than beating her with a rod. When we inserted the string that was laced through her nose into the leading rope, Camille got terrified so much that she shitted and wetted herself. After all these trials and tribulations, our little team was more or less ready for the trip, and we headed for the most difficult task: getting across the motorway. To make matters worse, it was already growing dark, and we had only one hour left to leave the industrial field near Ardakan and pitch camp somewhere in the desert. Before we parted, somebody got the police on us. It was not out of hostility, they just wanted us to make clear who we were and what exactly we wanted. At such an extremely traditionalist place, our presence and project were both without example – we were about to go to places where no foreigner had ever laid foot before. Sebastian explained our plan to the policemen, and we exchanged numbers, so that we could call them in case anything would happen, and vice versa. Interestingly, the policeman was accompanied by a military man, and they were with an oldschool, Simson–like police motorbike…

We were really afraid of getting across the motorway. There was a big animal with us that hadn’t seen anyting like that before, and we had to navigate between speeding cars and trucks. As soon as we arrived at the side of the road, the drivers got so surprised at the sight of us that we almost caused a mass accident. Some of them even blew their horns, which caused the camel to go wild, but we managed to keep it off the road somehow. Later we got to the other side without much trouble at a roundabout, and headed for the industrial zone.

Belle, the dog faithfully walked by our side and the the sun was already setting, but the row of factories just didn”t seem to end. We had no other choice than choosing a quiet place at the side of a building and spend the night there. We pitched camp behind a pumphouse. There was some cement factory nearby, and a net of high voltage cables across the horizon ahead of us – it wasn’t exactly the kind of desert night we had in mind when we started our journey, but it was ok anyway. Meanwhile, we made jokes about this being the real industrial tourism.

It wasn’t completely dark yet when a man appeared out of the blue and started shouting. It turned out that he was from the nearest village, Torkham. Then came another, and another. Together they were like seven. He wasn’t shouting becase he was angry or something, that was just his way of speaking. We sat down behind the pumphouse together. They told us that they went there every evening to relax. Now, that’s a real perversion, at least in the Western eye. Among them was a truckdriver (who drives ten thousand kilometres a month, as he transports iron ore from the world’s largest iron ore mine to the nearby railway station), a teacher, a farmer, and the caretaker of the pumphouse. The latter got us some water instantly, which they pump up to the ground level from 150 metres deep. He made us tea and drew a cabel with an incandescent bulb to the back of the building, so that we didn’t have to sit there in the dark. After a quick introduction they asked us if we wanted to have some alcohol, and a chunk of opium also appeared out of the farmer’s pocket. Finally the policeman turned up, shook hands with us, asked if everything was alright or we needed something, and then left. World Tour á la Jenő Rejtő (famous Hungarian writer with rather crusty humour) again…

We woke at dawn in order to walk as much as we could before the heat got unbearable, but it turned out that we had wandered too far away from the main road, so we had to go back a little, and still couldn’t get out of the industrial zone. We wanted to see nature around us so badly… After a couple of hours we just gave up. The industrial field seemed endless, there were construction sites everywhere: road works, excavation, and these kind of things. At last we got jammed inbetween the industral field and the motorway, which is the worst possible way of touring, especially when one has a camel to look after. We had to call for a pickup truck to transport the animal to Haft-a-Dor. After an hour two men appeared with a ravaged local model called Zamyad. In the meantime, I took dozens of photos of trucks speeding by to kill time somehow.

As none of us had any experience in navigating a camel, we started a rather hopeless manouver to get the animal up the plateau somehow, when it was too obvious that she wouldn’t want to go there by herself. It didn’t make much difference either that we were six against one (out of that that six I was the biggest and strongest with my 80 kilograms). Forcing a 300-kilogram beast up to a truck is a pretty futile mission. First we trussed up its front legs so that she couldn’t get a foothold on the ground, and, having no other option, she would get up the plateu somehow with little jumps. Or at least we thought so. Fail. Then we bound up her eyes, so that she couldn’t see where we wanted to lead her. Fail. We parked the truck in front of a little hill and tried to lead her up from there. Fail again. In the meantime, two of us pulled and two of us pushed her, while the remaining one tried to tease her with bread. After an hour of hopeless trying we somehow managed to get her up. There she got such a shock that she shitted on Roman’s shirt and trousers, who was pushing her from the back. Once she stood on the plateau, we tried to get her to sit down, but didn’t succeed. Finally we decided to go. We thought that if it got too instable for her she would sit down by herself anyway. We had to drive at least another 20 kilometres to reach our destination, which would have been a mission impossible had we no car. I don’t even have to mention that we couldn’t find any shady places suitable for taking a life-saving rest alongside the road.

Haft-a-Dor is typically a place where only the most frugal can survive. Terrible heat (though it was only the end of March), hopeless desert at one side, factories only some kilometres away at the other. Fortunately they have enough water, thanks to the ancient canal system, which made life possible in the desert. It was developed thousands of yeras ago. The canals come from the mountains and through the desert deep down in the ground. It must have been a very tough job building them, especially if you think about the fact that they had to dig deep wells at every 50-100 metres in order for the system to be maintainable. If you take a look at the place with Google Earth, you can see these ancient canals (called kanats by the locals) clearly. If they were to follow these, they could dig out the ruins of ancient farms. Up from the air it is clear that man-made land once penetrated into the desert much more deeply than nowadays. But digging is tough work for sure, not to mention that metal detectors arre banned here in Iraq, so the project is bound to fail.

The place has been populated for thousands of years, nobody knows the exact date. Everything is ancient and timeless. There are wall ruins dating back far before islamic times everywhere, and you can see deserted caravan inns and canal systems, all in pretty good shape. We, Hungarians were still wandering somewhere around the north of the Caspian Sea and living a nomad life, when these folks built massive fortresses to protect the busy caravan roads they already had. I am always shocked by this kind of timelessness. This is not simply old, not even very old, this is something leading back to such a distant past that one can’t even imagine. At least I try, and these kind of experiences are very helpful in that regard.

At first sight Haft-a-Door looks like it was taken from the desert scenes of Star Wars, except that instead of the tusken raiders there are women at the door in black, white and colourful chadors. There is a huge pool in front of the house, full of water and half a meter long fish. In the background there are pomegranate gardens and pistachio groves, and a wheat field, or some other corn in the ear, I’m not a farming expert, you know. Mementos of the moder era come in the shape of rubbish, car tires, iron tanks, and a white sanitation container which Ayatollah Khamenei presented the owners with when he happened to pay a visit there some time ago.

And yes, there were some camels nearby, the reason why we brought Camille there. There was only one problem: the head of the family wasn’t at home, and nobody seemed to be daring enough to make such a big decision without him whether to adopt the camel or not. So we left her there and promised to get back a few hours later to talk about the matter. In the meantime, we went to see a little village approximately 15 kilometres away called Aqda.

Aqda is a typical tourist sight: ancient clay town with gate and tower and underground water reservoir, many wind towers, all of these in pretty good condition. The reconstruction of the place is still going on, so it is yet untouched by grand tourism, but it will be opened to the public in a few years. Hence, we were fortunate enough to get an impression of it in the last minutes before it gets altered by external effects. By the way, the village is also called the gate of Yazd.

They ordered the reconstruction of Aqda to pay tribute to the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, so it is quite a new project. The village, the caravan inn and the fortress are all located by the ancient Iranian caravan road. So far, they have managed to finalize the renovation of the city gate and the water reservoir, and there is still much work to do on the mosque, the baths, the arcades and the bazaar – as well as the houses inbetween them. A local man invited us into his private museum, which by no surprise had very few visitors so far: there are no tourists, and the locals are not interested in it, since there is nothing new for them to see there. The owner collected everything from the village and the villages nearby that the locals had found but no longer used and that had once been owned by the people living around the area. He told us about his fantastic vision of making the labirinth-like houses into guesthouses, but he will have to wait a few more years for this plan to come to fruition, since the renovation is still going on, and they are waiting for the necessary permissions. But I’m damn sure that in a couple of years it will turn to a goldmine, which of course will ruin the present atmosphere of the place, as more and more people will start coming here. Some will make good business and get really rich, new houses will be built, the Iranian will rediscover the area for themseves, and finally the whole place will turn into a big, bustling open-air museum.

We got really hungry on the road, and a local friend invited us for lunch to his fruit garden. We climbed over the fence, shook a strawberry tree and a plum tree, and ate ’til we were full. Meanwhile, he got home, and turned up again an hour later with a can of water, some tea, a plate of rice and a big portion of salad. He also took his younger brother with him, who happened to be a sprinter. The guy runs the 100 meters in 10.6 seconds. He trains in Isfahan. As we found out, it is not a bad business to own a fruit garden there: a quarter of a hectare costs ten thousand dollars and earns two thousand dollars a year. There is not much work with it: the water is there, and it is enough if one checks it once every week. Only harvest is hard work.

It was early in the evening when we got back to Haft-a Dor. We began a two hour-long negotiation with the head of the family until finally managed to get to an agreement. The biggest problem, as it turned out, was that owning a camel meant a lot of responsibility. Camels can die, or they can be hit by a car or train, and then it is not easy to account for them. Two weeks before, the man told us, four of their camels had died in some mysterious illness, which caused the family a four-thousand-dollar deficit. As if that wasn’t enough, the heart of one animal had been eaten by their dog which had also died. But our Sebastian is almost an expert in making business with the locals. To offer a monthly fee for camelkeeping is a failed business, as once the caretaker has the money, he is no longer interested in keeping the animal in good condition, only in preventing it from dying. Finally, they agreed that if the family took care of the camel, after two years half of its proprietary rights would be theirs. That way it would be in their own interest to keep it in good condition. Sebastian also promised to bring tourists there, and pay a fixed fee to the family for every camel ride. In the end, all were satisfied, especially Camille, who was now in good company, taken care of by professionals and getting enough to eat. The only concern was that she could be hit by a car if she wandered out to the road. Should this happen, traditions dictate that the driver pays for the camel if the accident takes place in broad daylight, and the owner of the camel pays for the driver’s damages if it happens at night. It is all well organised, you see, though there are endless quarrels coded in the system, as to what happens if such an accident takes place around nightfall.

When we got back to Yazd we only had energy left for a feeble decline: Roman carefully sneaked in his clothes full of camel shit into the laundry, and I came over to Isfahan to look for some new adventures. I was happy, as my enrty turned out to be just perfect: two white guys with a big land rover, a big, white dog at the back, the windows down, a cool night breeze, and, on top of all this, black metal on full volume.

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