Vali – homestay proprietor, carpet merchant, tour guide, polyglot, and all-round awesome guy – is the reason I stayed in the north-east Iranian town of Mashhad for four days instead of one.
Mashhad is the second-largest city in Iran, boasting three million people and the second-holiest site in Shia Islam. For this reason it’s a major pilgrimage destination and is choked with domestic and international Islamic tourists for most of the year. The sole attraction is the shrine to Imam Reza who was killed on the site in the year 818, and it is certainly a stunning complex of buildings that has expanded steadily over time and which continues to grow to this day.
I planned to hit Mashhad, check out the shrine, stay a night, and then get going again; there’s really nothing else to see. So, fresh off a 17-hour overnight bus from Kerman (complete with mini-interrogation by cops at a police checkpoint in the wee hours) I got my bearings inside Mashhad’s enormous bus terminal and called a recommended homestay from the guidebook. Accommodation is famously tight in Mashhad due to the flood of pilgrims so I wasn’t sure if I was going to have any luck. However, a man answered the phone, asked whether I was at the bus station, and before I could say anything gave me instructions to find his homestay, said he’d see me in 30 minutes, and hung up the phone.
Assuming this meant there was room available I caught a packed bus, men fighting to give up their seat for a backpack-wielding tourist, and then walked a kilometre in the direction pointed out by the driver. As I approached the location of the homestay I saw a man standing in the middle of the footpath up ahead, waving wildly with his arms to catch my attention. This is when I met Vali, and after we’d exchanged greetings we walked down an alley and entered his home.
Inside the house we sat on the floor of one of the four upstairs rooms (kitchen, son’s bedroom, two general rooms) and drank some tea. Within seconds of putting down my backpack I felt completely welcome and at ease in Vali’s house, helped along by his manic and infectious enthusiasm, easy smile, and genuine hospitality. He asked eagerly about my trip so far, and excitedly showed me some photos from a mountain trek he’d done two days previously with another tourist. Vali outlined the price of his room and board which, quite shockingly in a country experiencing rampant inflation, was identical to that published in the 2008 edition of the Lonely Planet. When the book updates its prices, Vali explained, he’d feel comfortable updating his. A night of accommodation and three beautiful home-cooked meals at Vali’s place costs the same as one night in a budget hotel of questionable cleanliness. Vali told me that he enjoys accommodating and guiding tourists more than anything else in the world because he loves being able to meet and get to know so many interesting people from all around the world.
Weary from my long overnight bus trip I spent most of the day lounging around the house talking to Vali and the three other tourists who were staying in the large downstairs room of the house which contained a handful of comfortable beds, random pieces of furniture, and lots of carpets on the floor and hanging from the walls. The whole place felt very inviting and cosy. The upstairs open-air patio was similarly covered with lush carpets and cushions, and it was on the patio that people gathered to chat and lounge. It was also on the patio and in the cool and refreshing evening breeze that I decided to make my bed each night.
I visited the shrine that evening, spent an hour walking around the complex, and watched a massive courtyard full of pilgrims participate in sunset prayers. There were solo pilgrims who privately and solemnly toured the site, newly married couples on their honeymoons (it’s a popular post-marriage destination), families with young children who giggled and misbehaved like children the world over, and groups of chador-clad older women shuffling counter-clockwise around the perimeter along with the rest of the crowd.
Back at Vali’s I joined the other three travellers around a plastic tablecloth on the floor to eat dinner prepared by Vali’s sister. Vali’s wife was away in Tehran visiting family so his sister was staying for the duration to cater for Vali and his guests. “I cannot wait for my wife to get back,” said Vali. “My sister is a good cook but she is not as good as my wife.”
After dinner we all sat back against the walls, full to overflowing with amazing food, and drank tea while we talked. Vali’s enthusiastic conversation flowed constantly and he frequently stopped and reminded himself out loud to let others speak. At these times he’d ask one of us to tell a story to which he’d listen intently and then ask questions about.
However, the best story of the night belonged to Vali. In his youth he lived for some years around Europe in France, Switzerland and other places, and it is from this time that he gained his second languages – French, German and English (he has recently decided to learn Arabic as well.) During one period living alone in Paris, Vali felt a bit lonely (understandable for such an extrovert) so he started talking to strangers on the street, asking them if they’d like to have a coffee. One young man invited Vali back to his apartment and brewed a pot. Sitting in the lounge room in adjacent chairs drinking the cofffee and talking, the man reached out and touched Vali’s leg. “At first I thought he was trying to take my money,” said Vali, “but then I realised he was after something else. So I pulled out my Afghan knife, pointed it at him, shouted ‘arrêter’, and ran out of the house.”
The next day, Vali, two new arrivals and I went for a daytrip to a stepped village in the mountains about an hour away from Mashhad. Vali’s father was born nearby and Vali feels an extremely strong connection to the area. Kang is stunning in its authenticity and is completely free of tourists bar those who Vali brings along. First, we hiked up a slope opposite the town for a view of the population’s precarious grasp of the mountainside
Then we strolled through the village, stopping now and again to marvel at particularly amazing examples of unlikely architecture.
We met an old guy who Vali claims has outlived a dozen wives and were treated to an impromptu dance on his balcony.
A local family took us in for tea and Vali popped a headstand for no particular reason. After only 30 hours with Vali I already considered this sort of behaviour unremarkable.
After leaving Kang we stopped at another small village on the way back to Mashhad at Vali’s favourite chaykhaneh (teahouse) for a dizi (mutton and chickpea stew). Eating a delicious and authentic meal on a rickety wooden table at the side of the road amongst smiling locals is such a simple but completely amazing experience.
That night I was in two minds about what to do. I had planned to be out of Mashhad by now and visiting a couple of other places on the way back to Tehran for my flight out of Iran, but I was having such a good time with Vali in Mashhad that I didn’t want to leave. The next day I had been presented with an opportunity to go on an overnight mountain trek with Vali and a new German arrival, which would mean adjusting my schedule by an additional two days, but it promised to be pretty special. I chose the 3211m summit of Mt Shirbod.
At 6am the next morning we woke and ate a quick breakfast of bread, cheese, jam, egg and tea. The German, Hans, Vali and I packed windcheaters, water, and a blanket each, and Vali put a saucepan full of leftover soup from the previous night into his backpack.
We hit the road at 6:30am, catching two buses and a minibus to the last village before the walking track begins. After purchasing a sugarmelon and a watermelon we alternated between walking and hitching to travel the 10km from the village to the start of the walking track. Once at the base of the track we stopped to eat some of the soup and handful after handful of wild cherries pulled from bushes and washed in the ice-cold mountain stream next to our picnic spot.
For the next two hours we walked an extremely steep path up the side of the mountain towards a shelter built on a plateau just below the summit. The view was spectacular and our spirits were high, not even dampened after the plastic bag in which I was carrying the watermelon split, condemning the melon to a hair-raising ride back down the mountain and spectacular explosion against the rocks. “We have a saying in Persian,” said Vali. “This shows that the birds were meant to eat it.”
We reached the shelter at around 3pm and were pretty exhausted. Vali executed a quick powernap, Hans sat savouring the sun, and I walked around taking some photos. The thin shards of shale-like rock crackled underfoot like broken glass.
Half an hour later we set off on the three hour round-trip to the summit which involved little climbing, rather a glorious walk along plateaus and gentle inclines. The sun was beginning to sink lower in the sky so a bright glare was giving way to the rich colours of the mountains. Close to the summit the winds suddenly hit hard and we switched from sweaty t-shirts to windcheaters and hoods (or yellow plastic poncho for Vali). At the summit we braced against the cold wind and took some celebratory photographs.
There was a moment as we walked back towards the shelter that I was sort of overcome by the moment. I know a photo can’t do such an experience justice, but I looked up from the path, saw this view, and couldn’t believe I was on top of a mountain in Iran doing this.
We arrived at the shelter just as the sun was setting. Vali and I went for a walk to a nearby spring to fill our waterbottles and passed a shepherd who was setting up camp in a valley for the night. These shepherds spend the entire summer out in the mountains on their own with nothing but a bunch of sheep and the beautiful symphony of the livestock’s neck-bells to keep them company. The shepherd had just started his fire and the smoke drifter lazily in a vertical column until it reached the height of the plateau and the wind scattered it in all directions.
Inside the shelter we had a single candle for light and by its feeble illumination we ate the last of the soup, some bread, and the sugarmelon. There was no firewood in the shelter as Vali had expected so we were disappointed to be unable to use the tea and sugar we’d brought with us. Cold and tired, we wrapped ourselves in our blankets, fully clothed and wearing shoes, and went to sleep.
After a terribly uncomfortable night’s sleep (it was far colder than we’d prepared for) we rose at first light, shovelled a bit of bread into our mouths, and headed straight back down the mountain. With some warm blood pumping around our bodies and out of the cold breeze our spirits lifted enough for us to appreciate the spectacular pre-sunrise view. Arriving at the base of the mountain we walked back down the road towards the villages and it took about ten minutes for some locals in a tiny mud brick house to invite us for tea. After a freezing cold night a hot cup of tea was possibly the most exciting thing in the world for us so we accepted eagerly. We sat out the front of the middle-aged couple’s house and they fussed over us, bringing tea, bread, fresh honey and fresh home-made cheese pulled from its storage place in a bag suspended inside the mountain stream. I had a near-religious experience with the cheeses (a sheep-skin yoghurt and a goat’s fetta) and had Vali communicate to the woman that it was quite possibly the best cheese I’d ever eaten.
Our journey home took us past Vali’s favourite chaykhaneh so we stopped for tea with the locals and picked up three dizis to take home with us.
Back at Vali’s I had one of the best showers of my life (all of the best showers of my life seem to be while travelling) and the three of us sat down to eat the dizi after warming it back up on the stove, complemented by a massive jug of delicious, ice-cold and freshly-made doogh (a yoghurt, water and mint drink).
Then it was time for me to leave. It was a reluctant departure – I was sorely tempted to stay another day or two at Vali’s – but I really had to get moving. Vali walked me down to the bus stop because he takes a certain pride in looking after his guests from the moment they arrive in Mashhad to the moment they leave (Vali means “protector” in Persian, he solemnly reminds me) and I even got a little emotional shaking his hand and kissing his cheeks when saying goodbye. Vali urged me to come back again and without even thinking about it I promised that I would.
And I meant it.