Exploring Iran and Its Beautiful, Ancient Culture
Journeying through an ancient Middle Eastern country in the heat of summer.
WITH THE MUSIC of Pink Floyd blasting at full volume, my guide Sanaz and my driver Vahid are laughing and joking as we speed down a deserted highway in our Peugeot while the sun begins to set. And so it is in this spirit of camaraderie and adventure that I return to Iran. I have visited the desert country many times and enjoy finding wonderful places to visit and meeting the friendly, incredibly hospitable people. The second-largest country in the Middle East, Iran has a rich, refined culture and of course, an incredible history as one of the world’s oldest civilizations.
Americans are allowed to legally travel to Iran as long as they have a visa. Before applying for a visa, visitors need to first apply for a travel authorization number from the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. American citizens must travel with a guide. The purpose of my trip is to scout out potential routes for future tours that might interest adventure seekers.
And indeed, Iran is place that should not be quickly ruled out as a travel destination. It is home to 19 UNESCO-registered historical sites and some rugged and beautiful country. It is also a safe place to visit as long as you respect the culture and customs. When I was in Isfahan, one of my favorite cities in the world, I saw only five other Westerners, all from Europe. Most tourists stay away in the summer due to the heat but I love being there during that time.
Like a Moonscape
And speaking of the heat, it is now 4 p.m., the temperature outside is 122 degrees, the highway ahead is simmering like a mirror from the radiating heat and we have not seen another car for an hour.
I am on my way to photograph the Kalout rock formations in the Shahdad Desert and the whole trip out there in the heat is worth it. We arrive just before the sunset; the light is wonderful, turning to gold as the sun sets in the horizon. The landscape reminds me of the American Southwest, only a lot more dramatic.
As I climb slowly, drenched in sweat, around the huge rock formations the scene is like a moonscape and I love the solitude. “This is what real travel used to be all about,” I think to myself. What an adventure I am having and, with no one else around, I feel totally free.
After spending time climbing on the rocks taking photos, I head back down to the car. I am surprised to find that Vahid has set up a table in the shade with sliced watermelon, cookies and even espresso. In addition to the huge speakers, he actually has an espresso machine in the trunk.
The drive back to the city of Kerman at night is momentous, with more loud music, lots of laughter and a number of stops to look at the stars shimmering above. We also spend a night at a beautiful remote desert caravansary (an inn in Eastern countries where caravans rest at night) where we are the only guests.
We head to Shiraz, a regional trade center thought to be one of the oldest cities of ancient Persia. Just an hour out of Shiraz is Persepolis, a splendid palatial complex built in 500 B.C. on an immense half-natural, half-artificial terrace, and one of the world’s most stunning archaeological sites. We also spend a couple of days in Mashhad before heading off to Isfahan, famous for its Persian-Islamic architecture, with many beautiful boulevards, covered bridges, palaces and mosques.
I notice some new restaurants and cafes that have opened since my last visit four months ago. Isfahan is a great place to experience music and food, as long as you are not vegetarian — kebab is the main meal here and it is very good.
Well rested and fed, I am picked up in Tehran by my friend and mountain guide Ali in his Land Cruiser and we are off to the mountains. But first we must pass through Tehran, which is getting more unbearable every day, with traffic and air pollution becoming serious problems.
We make it through the city, pick up our cook and drive north for several hours. Arriving at the trailhead just before sunset, we notice that our mule drivers (who will be carrying our supplies and camping equipment) are nowhere to be found. The cook and I make camp while Ali locates the drivers, who it turns out were waiting for us in the wrong spot.
It is just before sunset and I am at 13,800 feet and crouching down close to the ground to take a photo of the valley beyond, where I started my trek. Out of the corner of my eye I catch movement on the ground and realize there is a snake at my feet. I jump up and run a few feet away with my heart racing.
“No one has died from a snakebite up here,” Ali says to me with a smile. I reply, “Not yet,” and we both laugh.
I am hoping to climb Alam-Kooh, the second-highest peak in Iran at 15,912 feet. I am the only foreigner on the trail. The window of opportunity for exploring this area is very short, from the beginning of July to late August. After that, the passes close due to snow and ice.
Trekking in Iran is very different than trekking in the Himalayas, where I usually lead tours — the support staff here is good but minimal; we set up our own tents and eat alfresco; and there are no dining or toilet tents and no Sherpas to set them up. But the Iranians are very helpful, friendly and polite and this makes up for the missing Sherpa support. The food is also very good, but if you like coffee bring your own, because the standard on trek is Nescafe.
After we pass two small villages and hot springs we are all alone to enjoy the mountains. It’s an absolutely wonderful experience not seeing other trekkers. I have been on about 50 treks all over the Himalayas, Karakoram, the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs, Africa and South America, and this trek, albeit short, is a treat indeed. The weather is hot during the day and pleasant at night until we reach higher altitudes.
Night and Day
The night before arriving at base camp we make camp by the river, and on the other side is an Afghani man who is taking care of 2,000 sheep with the help of five dogs that bark all night long. Far from being an annoyance, the activity adds a note of adventure.
The next morning, we start on the trail very early because we have a difficult, long day ahead. We climb two 12,000-foot passes before finally descending to our base camp. On the second peak I find another Afghani sheepherder taking a rest in the morning sun. When he finds out I am from the United States, he smiles broadly and says how much he admires America. He then asks how can it be that it is morning in Iran and nighttime in the States? I pick up a round rock and do my best to explain it to him as Ali translates. Finally, the Afghani man puts his palm over his heart as a sign of respect and wishes us safe travels.
The view from this second pass is gorgeous, with high peaks, lakes and ice. A few hours later we arrive at a beautiful meadow and set up our base camp by a creek and yes, on the other side of the valley is yet another Afghani sheepherder with about 1,500 sheep and four dogs.
We wake up to a gorgeous sunrise, golden-colored mountains and crystal-clear air. We set off very early for the summit of Alam-Kooh. The trail is easy for the first hour, then gets very narrow and steep and is full of loose rock. Halfway up we meet an Iranian group of about 15 men and women (yes, women are free to go trekking in Iran) who had come up the night before. When they hear that I am American everyone shakes my hand and tells me how much they love the USA.
We reach the summit around noon, and what a wonderful feeling to stand at the top enjoying the view. The sense of accomplishment is always a natural high.
The Road Home
On the long Turkish Airlines flight home, I look back at my experiences in the desert, the mountains and the country. To me it is regrettable that Americans are so hesitant and misinformed about Iran. We are strategic friends with other countries in the Middle East where women are not allowed to go outside on their own, drive a car or go to a cafe. In Iran you see young and old women driving cars, walking hand-in-hand with their boyfriends and having lunch with their girlfriends. One thing that impresses me is that even very conservative women dressed all in black are not afraid to share a cup of tea at a cafe with more progressive women wearing makeup and just a scarf over their heads. Women in Iran are also not shy about striking up a conversation with a foreigner like me.
I have been to Iran many times and the people there are some of the most welcoming around. The only real danger in Iran is crossing a city street — for that you truly need determination, agility, and nerve.
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition with the headline: “Journey: Iran”.