Iranians love the jungle. Their country is 70-80 percent desert, with little slivers of green in the north and the south that are, hands down, everyone’s favourite part. We asked a class of 14-year-old schoolgirls what part of the country we should visit, and nine out of 10 of them exclaimed “the jungle in the north”. Coincidentally this was exactly our plan.
After almost two weeks of dry landscapes, humidity’s kiss felt like a smack with a sponge. My hijab stuck to my hair like a wet blanket. Mook’s bare arms laughed at me as his T-shirt flapped in the breeze. We were driving from Tehran east to Mashhad, where we would pick up our Turkmenistan visas and exit the country. Outside, the mountains were covered in green trees and the fields with naturally-growing grass. Everything looked soft, fresh and lush, and you could see why peopler who live in a world of sand and concrete would call this their favourite place in the country.
It didn’t really feel like jungle though. The mountains and trees looked like any other forest, with deer and maybe bears, but definitely not like a jungle where jaguars prowl and Tarzan swings from vines. I figured that people who live in a desert country probably wouldn’t know a jungle from a forest or a swamp. They were just excited to see trees.
But while we were scouring Google Maps for a place to camp for the night somewhere on the 11-hour drive, there it was: Ghorogh Jungle. It was in a convenient spot on the map, almost exactly halfway between Tehran and Mashhad, and only about 30 or 40 kilometres from where we sat with our coffee and fruit smoothie, using the wifi in a Minions-themed cafe. It was late and we were tired, and the chaos of Iran’s roads had taken its toll. The jungle definitely looked like a good place to sleep.
We pulled off the road where Google told us to, but the area looked more like a park and a playground than a jungle. We followed our instincts and drove further in, down paths that went from asphalt to gravel to dirt. Our headlights beamed into the pitch-black darkness. After going a ways in, we found a flat area a few metres in from the road with some trees that looked perfect to camp under. Instead of a shoulder there were huge ditches, but we could park the car as out of the way as possible and hope that it was late enough and we were deep enough that no one would drive past.
After our ordeal in Tabriz we were a bit paranoid. Our biggest fear was that we’d be found by the cops—an Iranian woman tented up with a German man that is not her Islamic husband. I was still afraid about the whole “American spy” thing, and didn’t want to field questions from unwelcome authorities in the middle of the night. Mook was afraid someone would try to rob us, and he brought the ax into the tent just in case.
We got in, zipped up the tent, and laid our heads down for the night. There were weird sounds outside, like screaming and laughing, but I figured it was just some people dicking around in the forest. Suddenly we heard a motorbike.
It cruised around for a while, the sound of its small motor slowly getting closer, until the headlamp flashed against the nylon of the tent. They drove a circle around us, then drove up to the car, paused for a second, and drove back to us.
A gravelly voice shouted at us in Farsi. “Hey! Hey you, who is in there?” Like several other times in the past week or so, I didn’t feel nervous as much as a sense of disbelief. What could be happening to us now?
Mook unzipped the tent and stuck his head out. The voice flashed his torch down at our tent. From what I could see through the flap, there were two men, and one of them was carrying a Very Big Gun. Their voices were urgent and interrogating, but I could tell by their rubber boots that they weren’t cops.
They kept asking if Mook was alone, and were trying to explain something. Finally I stuck my head through the tent flap. It was two older men, farmers by the look of it. I don’t know if they were surprised by my lack of hijab or my tattoos or just to see a woman out in the forest at night, but they were definitely surprised. They simplified their Farsi for us and finally I got it:
What are you doing camping in the jungle? The jungle is dangerous! We’re hunting for a big animal (one of the men curled his fingers into claws and growled) tonight and it’s very dangerous here. You have to go camp in the park, we’ll bring you there.
So much for camping in the forest. We threw our gear in the car and hopped in. The two men sped along on their motorbike, leading us back through the dark to the park with the children’s playground. There were a few cars lined up, and three or four tents pitched right on the pavement next to them. We parked where the dudes told us to.
“See, this is safer. You can camp here, or there, or even there.” He pointed to some areas near the road.
People in the row of tents came out to see what the commotion was, and thought the situation was pretty funny. “Wheraryoufrom?” They offered us their camping stove, but we just wanted sleep. Mook and I took our tent into a relatively dark grove of trees about 15 metres from the road. Surely we’d be safe here too. Exhausted, we climbed in and crashed.
We managed to sleep until about 8:30am. When we unzipped our tent and looked out into the daylight, we got a better look at where we’d been dragged last night. There were picnic tables and playground toys. Nearby was a giant cage full of rabbits, sniffing around and waiting for breakfast. When we walked to the toilet, we passed children’s funfair rides. And on the way to brush our teeth, a monkey looking bored in his cage. Was it a park? A funfair? A zoo? We had no idea.
In Iran you can really camp almost anywhere you want—a city park, the side of the road, or even next to a police station. Try and camp in the jungle and the locals boot you out… but at least it was the locals and not the police.