Indian expedition comes to a halt in Tehran
By Sunrita Sen
Tehran/Esfahan, Dec 13 (DPA) After 30 days together, largely in the closed confines of three cars, it's a sad moment when we bid goodbye to fellow members of our expedition in Tehran - even if the farewell is premature as we find out later.
The Footsteps of Nikitin Expedition following the travel route of a 15th century Russian trader from St. Petersburg to Mumbai is being called off a week before it was supposed to end, expedition leader Phalguni Matilal tells us in Tehran.
"I am calling off the expedition for financial reasons," Matilal says soon after we entered Iran on the last leg of our journey, which has taken us across Russia, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and now Iran.
Matilal says the price of the six snow tyres he had to buy for our SUVs to ride the Russian winter and the cost of shipping the cars and passengers across the Black Sea has eaten into his funds forcing him to cut short the expedition.
This is the second expedition Matilal has organised and his first overseas. The inexperience shows in the lack of preparedness for both the weather - the snow blizzards followed us all the way to Georgia - and for unforeseen contingencies.
The short daylight hours leaves very little time for the film crew accompanying us to get footage for a documentary on the journey for India's Ministry of External Affairs.
The huge discrepancies in estimates of distances garnered from Web sites and the actual distance on ground added to our problems. We would often set off on a six-hour drive and be on the road for 10-12 hours. For example, the original distance between Baku in Azerbaijan to Tabriz in Iran was estimated to be 400 km but turned out to be nearly 1,000 km, forcing us to make an unscheduled stop.
The cars do not have multiple driver insurance, which would have cost more, and only three persons had to do the entire driving across more than 10,000 km, putting them under tremendous strain.
But Sanjeev Thakur and Abhineet Mehta, the young drivers from Himachal Pradesh, and auto engineer Sudhir Kashyap did very well. As we say goodbye, Sanjeev and Abhineet grip my arms and ask why can't we do the last stretch together. They have to drive the cars to Bander-e-Abbas and will stop at the Iranian cities of Esfahan and Shiraz as scheduled earlier.
I'll miss my young roommate Bani Dhillon, a member of the film crew. Bani spent three years of her childhood in Vladivostok and it was both a delight and an education to see her rediscovery of Russia.
The two other women on the trip - dancer Sharmistha Mukherjee and energy expert and journalist Sudha Mahalingam - and I decide to carry on at our own expense and see Esfahan, Shiraz and the ruins of Persepolis before returning to India as originally scheduled.
Debraj Pradhan, deputy chief of mission at the Tehran embassy, tells us it's extremely difficult to get a tourist visa for Iran but agrees that we must make the most of this opportunity. He also goes out of his way to help us book our tickets and hotel in Esfahan.
So we tie our black headscarves tight around our heads and board the Volvo bus for Esfahan. I get a few worried calls from home and try and convince my family that despite our impressions, Iran is one of the safest places on earth for women to travel alone.
In Esfahan's wondrous Naqsh-e-Jahan square with blue and yellow mosque domes we run into other members of the expedition.
Persian studies expert Ramakant Diwedi is the only one to advance his flight and return home. We are a bit bewildered. Matilal had said that the film crew would be taken along as the documentary needed to be completed whether the expedition carried through to the end or not.
Hari Vasudevan, Russian history professor and the intellectual inspiration of the tour, explains to a questioning Sudha that it was felt that our expertise was not required beyond Tehran. We wonder why we were not told of this before we set off on the trip.
Sudha feels awfully let down. Especially since the haphazard planning has left her no time to follow up her meetings with energy and oil professionals along the way - one of the professed aims of the expedition along with exploring the potential of a north-south trade corridor. We have not achieved much on that front either.
But what we have achieved are people-to-people contacts. But that could have been done as individuals. The three of us are stopped at every turn in Esfahan by curious strangers who ask whether we are from India - the land of Gandhi.
"Where is your bindi? Do you really burn your dead? Are there many Muslims in India? What do you feel about our nuclear programme? We like Indians. Do you like Esfahan?"
Sitting in the warm winter sunshine in the heart of the city which French poet Renier described as half the world, I am offered a fistful of walnuts by an Esfahani, who then waits to see whether I appreciate their taste. I'm glad I did not return to India without experiencing Esfahan.