In the dining room of a remote hotel in Iran’s Alborz Mountains was a locked glass case displaying a solitary English-language book. “The Valleys of the Assassins, Freya Stark,” said the hotelier as he unlocked the case, removed the book and turned to the page of a hand-drawn map. He pointed to our location. “You know Freya Stark? She came here in 1930. English lady, like you.” I nodded. She was one of the reasons for my journey.
“I think you are Freya Stark – but on motorcycle!” he declared as he carefully returned the book and locked the cabinet door. It seemed like a lot of reverence for a 10-quid paperback, but the book has immortalised this valley and his village.
I was motorcycling through the Alborz as part of a longer ride around Iran. My journey would take me more than 3,000 miles from the Turkish border to the southern deserts. I had long been an admirer of the British explorer and author and her forays into 1930s Persia, which she approached with a gung-ho attitude not normally associated with the serious geographical expeditions of the era. Most of all, I liked that she was entirely unpretentious about her motivation. “For my own part I travel single-mindedly, for fun,” she said.
Stark had walked this same route I was riding more than 80 years earlier, tackling dangerous terrain and doubting locals in order to map what was then uncharted territory. She was on a mission to discover the ruins of Alamut Fortress, headquarters of the ancient Ismaili sect, better known as the Hashashin, who had terrorised this region in the 11th century.
Even today, the steep-sided mountain roads of the Alborz have a lonely, forbidding feel, but here, and throughout Iran, I would find myself approached at the roadside by complete strangers who would invite me to stay at their homes. The feeding would begin as soon as I walked through the door – plates of fresh melon, sweets and nuts served with tea – always tea. Meals of flatbread and yogurt dips followed by stews, on piles of Persian tahdig rice – crisped on the bottom of the pan and drenched in butter. I asked one man about Iranian hospitality. “People must look after each other,” he told me, with a serious expression. “No matter what religion we are.”