On the Iranian side the soldiers are very young and look at me from behind the gate which opens to let me through to the offices.
After letting me jump the queue of people waiting for the visa, a soldier brings me in front of the seniors. One of them wants to have a picture taken with Pirlo (apparently myself), another one sighs dreamily at the word “Milano”. Then I get asked, seriously this time, what I think about the Iranians. I say that I traveled many kilometres to find out by myself. “Welcome to our country but be careful…roads are very bad”.
The last gate opens, a parked car with the bonnet opened offers local currency, from the window of another one the dirty feet of someone resting stick out.
I enter the traffic of Khoy in the hot hours, looking for a currency exchange bureau. My guardian angel comes towards me with a resolute look and says in a perfect English “Welcome to Iran, what is it you need? Park your motorbike in front of my shop, none will touch anything. I will take you there”.
His name is Mani, he is 25 and studies pharmacy in India. He occasionally works in the family shop which is right in front of the bazar. He takes me to the exchange bureau, he explains the value of Rial and Toman, he finds a perfect hotel for me and buys me an ice cream whilst showing me off like a trophy to her acquaintances on the road street.
In the evening at the hotel I get a message delivered in Italian: “ hi, I saw your motorbike and I couldn’t believe it! I am passionate about travelling, call me I am at the 104. Amir”.
Amir is an Iranian guy who has been living in Italy for many years. He is currently building an hospital in a war zone. That precious encounter changes my journey and gives it another meaning. I will drive less kilometres but I will go to the Iranian Kurdistan mountains.
At the petrol station near the Urmia salty lake, a small blue Honda approaches. I instantly think of a nuisance but Shahin approach is very different: a smile, where do I come from, do I need anything? I ask for directions to the lake. He invites me to follow him and he will take me there.
It feels like riding on the snow and we aim straight to the centre of the immense body of water, the biggest lake in the Middle East before the river was diverted to the thirsty Tabriz few years ago.
I am surprised of such beauty in a place that is dying. In the distance, like in a dream, I see a veiled woman who is walking on the pink surface of the lake.
Among the insane traffic of the yellow cabs of Urmia which nearly touch me, my headache gets even worse. I park my bike in the Reza Hotel hall where it will stay for a week. The following morning I will be found unconscious in the lift. At the hospital I get diagnosed with food poisoning.
I still have cold sweats and no strength when I get back on the road. Determined to leave despite losing 6 kg, I intend to stop at the first stumbling block on the way to Zanjan.
The motorway runs ever so thick until it clots in a city artery: I am in Teheran.
My arrival feels like a dream and to this day I couldn’t say if it really happened or if it was the result of my imagination. I see the Azadi Tower, the city symbol, but I cannot reach it, I have to follow the flow of the cars wherever they go. I read the road-book I wrote before leaving with the directions to reach Saba’s house but I realise soon enough that I can get there only by following a cab.
Purified by the illness, with no needs nor desires, balanced and in form, the days in Teheran go by happily among collective cabs, car trips with friends and dinner invitations. Freed from the responsibility to reach the destination I now have under my feet, I have no desire to carry on, perhaps because that would mean going back.
When I thank Saba for her hospitality and I decide to set off to the Kurdish region, I found myself being lazy.
I stop in Senandaj, capital of the Iranian Kurdistan , before carrying on towards the villages in the mountains. Sanaz, a girl I met in an internet-café, invites me to use her home wi-fi, she introduces me to her parents and her siblings. I am the dinner guest and when I express my contentment for being able to speak to a girl who is not wearing a veil, Sonouran, the older sister, says with a smile that they are Kurdish and communists. The evening flows pleasingly around the table singing “Bella ciao”.
I leave the asphalt road for a mountain unsurfaced one which becomes difficult and full of potholes only when approaching the few inhabited places. I get to Palangan covered in dust, a village built by hand with stones and mud. When it becomes impossible to carry on I leave the bike near the first houses I come across and I cover it with old blankets borrowed from Mohammed, the mayor’s son.
After a meeting held by the elderlies to assess the foreigner, the mayor called Razi invites me over for dinner. I am allowed to witness the people in the house pray, comfortably sitting on the magnificent rugs.
Mohammed and Carzan play football in the bedroom while Rojein, the beautiful 16 year- old sister, dressed in a traditional yellow dress, peels potatoes sitting on the floor. With a smile she asks “why are you not Muslim?”
I leave heading north along the unsurfaced road which run few kilometres away from the border with Iraq. These are the places we are told not to visit.
The ochre hills, from gold yellow to light brown, are round and soft. In the valley a line of dense green trees hide the river. It is not difficult to imagine it in flood among the hills covered with flowers, in spring.