I was the first to awake, finding my nose surrounded by feet on both sides. Cold weather, the fear of solitude and unforeseen laziness in setting up the hammock meant that we would always find ways to fit the three of us in a tent designed for two. It also meant that someone had to sleep in the middle. That night it had been my turn.
I stayed in a comatose state for long. When the sun climbed out from behind the mountains, the heat and humidity became quickly unbearable. But I did not move. A winter jacket, a woollen hat, and a layer of drowsiness had enveloped me in their tight grip.
A distant crackling noise started lulling me. It took a few minutes for my mind to meet my ear. It was a car, approaching from a distance – unusual, given how far off-road we had driven the previous night. I unzipped the tent and stood outside.
It was a model from a past generation, with an elongated front and tail - azure coloured, like the sky above us that morning. It stopped just a few metres away, and a middle-aged man came out. He wore a black baseball cap, a nylon sweater and a smile.
We shook hands. Short sentences in our respective languages followed in a hopeful survey for a common ground. All we found was the valley’s silence - our respective strangeness in it.
He seemed calm. I was still unsure of what to think.
He started pointing towards where the gravel path continued, where the mountain’s embrace got tighter. We understood he was asking us to join him there. He then sat into his car and continued his slow ascent.
We cleared our campsite and joined him. Higher along the path, the landscape changed quickly. The tumbleweeds became sparse and the valley spanned just a few metres from side to side. Beneath us, a stream appeared as a glass-like layer covering the gravel. Its light presence soon disappearing under a layer of moss.
Behind a turn, the valley ended in a circular patch of grass fenced by tall walls, adorned by pink wildflowers. The man awaited us in the sunshine of his high garden. He sat on the ground, facing a small square of loose bricks. Amongst these, a fire warmed a samovar.
We sat by him for a long time, filtering brief exchanges through a translation book Ankur always carried with him. His name was Basir. He had a son who worked for a tyre company. This we understood from a key-holder he gifted us. He was probably the mayor of a town nearby and what he was sharing with us was his weekly moment of solitude.
He asked us many questions. We understood few. He settled with the fact that we had three different nationalities. That seemed to make him happy.
In large part though, we sat there in silence. We were calm, at ease, as if we had nowhere to go. Only a few echoes travelled through the valley to reach our patch. Basir seemed to describe these sounds as the courting rituals between birds.
Once out of the mountain roads, we returned on the highway towards Esfahan. We were going to draw a "U" across Iran – sinking southwards from Teheran to Persepolis. There, we would turn around to cross the Dasht-e Kavir desert, Mashhad and the North-eastern border.
Travelling south frightened me. Every mile that was not bringing us east, closer to our destination, felt like a risk. A risk of tiring our car, its mechanisms, and our fortunes. It all seemed like a luxury; one that I was worried we could not afford.