It is a small place, just big enough to bury a couple of kings, really. Thirty feet up a cliff there is a hollow, clearly carved, and a small square opening. Carved symbols are high above the opening on either side and another larger carving is directly above the door. It shows two men, facing each other, bows on the ground before them.
"This is four thousand years old," says the man who brought us here, "It is Zoroastrian."
He appears shocked that I know the name, and the names Ahura Mazda and Ahriman.
He smiles. "Come, I will show you the most beautiful place on the Earth."
That's a hard sell. I've seen Crater Lake and rafted the Illinois River and stood in the mountains near Quito and scuba'd off Ambergris Caye... and there are less known places that I have found more beautiful.
Where he takes us is beautiful, though. A jagged, three-way canyon with a waterfall and flowing stream that look like magic in this parched land. Local families come here to picnic and they want their pictures taken with a real live American.
Then onward, to caves that were inhabited by people before there were humans ( a sophistry I enjoy: neanderthal remains have been found here), where a leader's son was born not too long ago and rebels/freedom fighters/terrorists have run and fought and hidden until very recently.
The caves are well up a steep hill, the kind you can get up without using your hands much. It is a good hike/run and I get to the top a little smug. The accompanying soldiers and most of the security detail are far behind- only one kept up with me to the top. Not too bad for an old man, but the knee with the screw in it will nag me tomorrow. That's tomorrow.
The view is spectacular. The cave is huge- tall and broad and dry- but relatively shallow. Smoke from millenia of fires have blackened the ceiling. We kind of scatter, depending on endurance and inclination. The rock is spectacular, like welded tuff but harder, perfect for climbing. So I climb a little. Take more pictures.
The others call me to a smaller cave opening. They tell me that the cave has never been bottomed, no one has ever explored it to the end. They say you can smell the methane and it would be deadly. I recognize the smell, though. It's bat shit.
The is a crawl for the first little bit. Uncomfortable for a hiker, maybe, but nothing special for a caver. It opens past that. I go past a bat nursery, careful to stay on the main path. The cave has obviously seen a lot of human traffic and I find it hard to believe that no one has seen the end. It is hot in there, something I'm not used to in a cave. It probably is the cave maintaining the average annual temperature of the world around. I can't go forever- no water, no partner and only two lights. I'm breaking all of the Caving Commandments, probably, so I eventually turn back and meet the others who waited outside.
Instead of retracing our steps, we angle down to the bottom of the canyon upstream from where we left the vehicles. It is fun, running and jumping among the rocks, like being a kid again. The bottom of the canyon is a dry riverbed. Somewhere in maybe a hundred yards of thick brush it magically turns into a clear stream, five feet deep in the one pool I measured. A huge spring must be right there. The rebels must have appreciated that. The tail of an
exploded RPG by the side of the trail is a pretty solid reminder. Nothing in this land is easy or perfectly safe.