On the road in rural Iran


September 14, 2009

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Rural Iran has startlingly beautiful landscapes that are largely unexplored by outsiders

By Jini Reddy The Guardian, Saturday 12 September 2009

[Hat Tip: Jim Engineer via NextGenNow@Linkedin]


I was tired. Exhausted. Ready to flop. I’d arrived in Zarabad, a sweet secluded village north of Tehran, with sleep rather than sightseeing on my mind. But in Iran, a land of soft light, poetic description and elegaic landscapes, the offer of a dusk stroll is hard to resist.

"Zarabad means ‘built by the Gods,’" said Cyrus, our guide’s uncle, as we meandered through winding streets into countryside flecked with walnut trees, streams, cherry orchards and rice fields; its bucolic serenity juxtaposed with a reminder of more brutal times, a cemetery filled with the graves of young men killed in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.

It wasn’t the day’s first taste of bloody history. We’d earlier driven through the Alamut valley, former home of the Hashshashin, who in the Middle Ages ritually plotted the deaths of their enemies – the origin of the word assassin and the genesis of the dark art. We’d broken our journey to hike in searing heat into the hills that protectively swaddled the ruins of the sect’s castle.

Small wonder that by that evening, I wasn’t just tired, I was hungry. Food came first, dished up in our Zarabad guesthouse by Afsar Hayati, a motherly widow. It was my first meal in rural Iran and it was magnificent: ghormeh sabzi, a green herb stew, mixing sorrel, parsley, spinach and rice, with barberries, grilled chicken and kidney beans, flatbread and sheep’s butter, all washed down with tea. It left me satiated, drowsy and sleeping like the dead.

I was travelling with Wild Frontiers, one of the few tour operators to regularly venture into rural Iran as well as its cities. Our group would travel south from Tehran – bar this detour north – in a rough circle covering some 3,000km.

It’s a trip where memorable sights emerge early and exit late. So next morning I crept out to watch the sun rise over the Alborz mountains. Our hostess was already awake. Yesterday, she’d doused us all with esfand, herbal incense said to purify and ward off bad spirits, now she offered spoonfuls of homemade sour cherry jam. It was the aperitif for a breakfast of flatbread, boiled eggs, tea and preserves – the perfect re-fuel after we’d trooped down to the public bath, past the onion-domed mosque to freshen up for our continuing journey.

Now travelling south, we skirted the harsh, inhospitable Dasht-e Kavir desert that covers much of central and southeast Iran. It’s no Sahara – more grey wasteland with occasional licks of white salt – but like the vast north African sands, it swirls with magical myths and is said to be rife with demons. My favourite is the evil-sounding ghul, a monster with a penchant for ambushing unsuspecting travellers and feeding on their flesh. Today he appeared to be full. We sped through unscathed to Kashan, an oasis town on the desert’s edge.

There we took a stroll in the Fin gardens, built in the 16th century as a summer retreat for the charismatic despot, Shah Abbas. They teemed with cypress and fruit trees, pools and pretty fountains – and teenage girls on a school outing. A sea of black, figure-hugging tunics, headscarves, flashing eyes and high spirits, they danced around us. "Where are you from?" they asked. " Do you like our country? Welcome to Iran". We all hugged, posed for photographs, and parted, enchanted and faintly euphoric at the encounter – international diplomatic tension belonged to another world.

It’s such moments – the rule, rather than the exception – that make travel to the Islamic republic such a delight.

Well, that and the snacks. On the bus, we drank tea from a gigantic flask, a ritual that’s also an excuse to graze on Iranian confectionary: sohan, a brittle caramel, gaz, a chewy nougat, faludeh, transparent spaghetti made from starch and rose water, and pashmak, cotton candy resembling horsehair.

Three hundred kilometres and several hundred calories south of Kashan, in Yazd, we restocked at the famous Haj Khalifeh shop – an Iranian Selfridges for sweets and biscuits – where our order was packaged in a dainty, ribbon-tied box by a solemn assistant.

This ancient desert town, a maze of sun-baked buildings and ancient wind towers, is home to Iran’s largest community of Zoroastrians – followers of a faith dating back to the sixth century. On a dusty trek up to the Towers of Silence we learnt how, traditionally a priest would lay out the bodies of the dead on the open-air towers, to be picked clean by vultures – a ritual similar to that of the Tibetan sky burial. "The practice stopped 50 years ago," said Mehrdad. "The vultures kept dropping bones in populated areas." Now the remains are buried in cement-lined graves to prevent what they see as contamination of the earth.

Later, outside the Friday mosque with its high tiled entrance and twin minarets, we stumbled upon a film crew recording a religious drama for Iranian television. I told the young director, Arash, that back in London I’d watched Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s animated film about growing up under the revolution. "We can’t watch it," he said flatly, "it’s banned here." Then his face lit up as he reeled off his favourite films: Godfather, Scarface, Once Upon a Time in America. "They’re all banned, too, but we get them through the black market."

A couple of restorative nights in Yazd’s plush Laleh hotel and we returned to the countryside. Next stop: Bazm, a hamlet in the foothills of the Zagros mountains. Another night, another culture: our hosts Abbas and Afar were Qashqai, a nomadic tribe that migrates between summer pastures in the Zagros and winters in lowlands near the Persian Gulf.

The couple, who aren’t fans of the nomadic lifestyle, offered us the run of their guesthouse. Glossy magazines might call its style eclectic. Rooms are lined with ruby red woollen rugs weaved by the Qashqai, its two bathrooms have western loos and showers, while goats and chickens live in a garden pen surrounded by a tangle of grapevines, apple and cherry trees.

Beyond the compound, life rolled along unhurriedly: old women led donkeys down dirt roads, a shepherd herded his flock, and some of our gang headed off for hikes in the hills. I chose to play hide-and-seek with our hosts’ daughters, Nilufer, nine, and Zahra, six, and then joined them to collect wildflowers in a nearby meadow.

That evening we drank malty, non-alcholic beer – bizarrely it left us feeling quite giddy – and feasted on Afsar’s home cooking: rice with barberries, lamb, noodle soup, fesenjan, a mix of walnuts and pomegranates, along with chicken, carrot salad and fresh, moist flatbread. We reluctantly said our goodbyes the next morning, and scrambled onto the bus with a mission. To track down some Qashqai nomads.

Like most of life’s best pleasures, it wasn’t instant gratification. We eventually spotted two tents in a stunning valley framed by mountain peaks. An extended family of Qashqai lived in the camp, the women distinctive in their colourful headscarves, shirts and skirts over black leggings. Shyly, they welcomed us into their goatskin tent for sweetened tea and almonds. We gave them a box of sweets and sprawled on the woven rugs and cushions around a central fire pit.

The Qashqai traditionally spend their days tending to livestock. "It’s we women who do the herding, milking of goats, and baking of bread," said Shamsie, a mother of 11 children. "When I was a child there were 100 families in this valley, now there are just two."

Many Qashqi have resettled in Shiraz, a buoyant, relaxed city about four hours’ drive to the southwest, the birthplace of Hafez, the revered Persian poet. Born in the 14th century, he wrote about love, wine, women and spirituality, giving rise to a form of fortune-telling that is still hugely popular: you ask a question, open a page of his verse at random, and receive guidance through his words.

I visited Hafez’s tomb in the Musalla gardens at sunset, when all of Shiraz appeared to be milling about among the cypress trees and roses. In the open-air pavilion housing his tomb, I joined the young women who sit clutching books of his poetry. One, seeing me peer over her shoulder, kindly handed me her volume.

As custom dictates I took a moment to formulate a silent wish – a rather sheepish one revolving around the latest love object – shut my eyes and chose a page. My new friend recited its poem to me in Farsi, softly and with great feeling. "What does it mean?" I asked, eagerly. "It’s love, it’s good," she replied sweetly, with a feminine empathy that – more than any pronouncement Hafez made on my affaire de coeur – stayed with me for days.

While my future love life sounded promising, you can’t take anything for granted. So next afternoon, in Soormeh, a tiny beauty salon, I got a makeover courtesy of Farah, Mazia, Marzijah, Foruzan, Gooli, Sanaz, and Mina – a big team even by the standards of 10 Years Younger. To my surprise, all were bareheaded in skinny jeans, T-shirts and revealing tank tops – except for 22-year-old make-up artist Mina, who sported a bizarre white veil and so much slap she resembled a geisha. "In private, we’re free to dress and express ourselves as we like," she said with a shrug, smothering me in foundation and blusher. "There are no restrictions."

Persians love picnics as much as they do poetry, and for a final dose of nature before Esfahan – that elegant, much chronicled city on the banks of the Zayandeh river – we spent a soporific, sun-filled day at the Margun waterfall, Iran’s largest that topples over a fantastic canyon, deep in the forest. At the falls, the locals picnicked in style, unfurling Persian rugs and laying out great pots of homemade stew.

Beneath us, four men on a ledge knelt and prayed before tucking in. We ate our own lunch of cucumber, tomatoes, dates, boiled eggs, goat’s cheese and watermelon perched on boulders, as shafts of sunlight pierced the forest. "The trees, they are like music," said our guide suddenly. I gazed upward at the groves swaying gently in the wind, and nodded: the simile seemed entirely fitting, and typical of this country, far from short on lyricism.