Northern Iran

By Matt

[I seem to be having a bit of a problem with the layout and pictures displaying properly. If you are on a PC or Mac then it should be good. If on a mobile device, if you loaded this in portrait leave it as portrait. Likewise for landscape. It seems to muck the display of pictures if you try to rotate your phone. Sorry about that!]

Hello, Salaam, Dorood!

Well, what can we say. We have been here 2 weeks and we feel like we have seen so much that we could have been here for a month! It’s been a whirlwind, so much so that we had to cancel a second tour into the mountains of Western Iran! We might regret it one day but as our guide said, it is something to do when we come back one day! I reckon with our kids (not sure what the grandparents would think about that one ha ha).

On to the blog though about the extreme variability of our experiences in Northern Iran!

Incomplete but mostly of where we went!

When booking our first night in Tehran we knew we would be pretty nackered from the tail end of our Turkey trip so Sheree had booked us in the Hotel Ibis adjacent to the Imam Khomeini airport on the outskirts of Tehran. This night was always going to be a write off and the next day we were to be picked up by our guide and driver. It was a great idea!  The hotel however had a few teething problems and we also may have been introduced to the laidback nature of Persian hospitality without realising it at the time. So the hotel was very new and the air conditioning didn’t work (we’ve actually since stayed in 3 expensive hotels with air conditioning that was heat only!) We went out for dinner and came back to a sauna! The lady at reception said that we can swap rooms, or stay in the same room and have a fan. I asked to swap rooms and have a fan as well, and following a look of bafflement she said “you want both? Really?” Like I was super greedy haha. And then she offered to change our room, no fan. She said wait ten minutes and someone will come. 30 minutes later and still no one had come! I went downstairs and the receptionist saw me and said “sorry it was so busy I forgot”, yet the three times I had been down there, I saw 3 other people! I figured she may just be forgetful, but 2 weeks in, there is definitely a pattern to this! We find it both hilarious and also frustrating! It just adds to the likeable and highly endearing nature of the Iranian people. So it was an early night, in a moderately cool/warm room (outside was 1 degree Celsius and we couldn’t open a window) and we were off on a tour in the morning to Northern Iran, a part of Iran that we knew would be extremely different to our ideas of Iran. We were bang on. 

Day 1

The pass from the high Iranian plateau down to the Caspian Sea

Day 1 began with us sleeping in because we forgot to wind our clock forward half an hour! Our tour guide messaged us “hello are you ready we are in the lobby”, before we had even gone down to breakfast! We felt terrible as we had agreed on a fairly early time for them and they had driven 4 hours from Isfahan to come to get us! The plan was for the guide, a wonderful and kind man, Fashid Zandi and our very funny and Charismatic driver Saman to take us to Masuleh, a village that you will see lots of pictures of if you searched for northern Iran or Gilan province of Iran. Like anything though, the pictures never do a place justice. Also, the drive there was one of the craziest we have been on.

Driver Saman on left, Fashid Zandi our guide on the right
Saman and his Taxi that must be one of the best travelled taxis in the country!

We have experienced the craziness of Asian roads but seriously, Northern Iranians take it to level 1000. It’s as if they completely ignore the lines on the road and will squeeze in between cars in our land and oncoming cars. I’m fairly sure our car lost a millimetre or two off the mirrors! It is something that you just have to accept. The next thing I’m going to write about is something I tried really hard to accept but I just could not. It is the only other negative thing I have to say about this amazing country and I have to write about it because i want to present an honest account of our travels. (Note we won’t be discussing the political situation while here). My Instagram looks great and all but to get those pics I’m in amazing places and/or waking at ungodly hours to be in the right spot at magic blue hour before the sun is up or golden hour just after sunrise or around sunset! Then I choose the best images to edit and share. In between is not the “Instagram Paradise” all of the time (but in some historical parts of this country it often is! Seriously).

So, it’s about plastic. Plastic, we need to talk. And then we need to get rid of you. The plastic pollution in the north of Iran is up there with any places I’ve seen. Every river had swathes of plastic that had been caught in riverside branches. Or it looked like it had previously been buried in hill sides that had eroded away and now plastic was spewing into the rivers. It was to the point of tragic and it took a lot away from our experience. Of course, Iran is hardly alone in this. We all consume plastic and shitloads of it. Plastic is such a massive global problem and it really is time we get extremely serious about it or one day there will be no point in travelling because the beauty of our world will be completely ruined, not to mention the actual real environmental harm that the pollution causes. 

Ok! Now that that is over time to get into some of the absolutely incredible parts of this region. 

Masuleh

Masuleh in the Gilan Province in Northern Iran is a small mountain village with around 400 inhabitants. The old village was established in 1000AD! Take that Kalgoorlie, they beat you by 900 years! The climate is humid and the vegetation in summer is lush and like a tropical jungle. We were there at the end of winter so there weren’t any leaves on the trees but they were all covered in thick green moss which made us think of a fairy tale (and sometimes maybe a scary movie haha). There was a massive river cascading through the town with fresh snow melt. The town in the centre has a line of shops and cafe/shisha joints which was an awesome way to spend our afternoon and evening. No wifi, but of course a local man lent me his wifi hotspot so I could send some pics to my family! Got to love the people here. It was so so chilled and you could really enjoy a few days here to drink tea, chat with anyone who speaks a bit of English (or not) smoke shisha and read a book (or do some serious hiking).

Day 2

The next day we we headed back down into the insane flats adjacent to the Caspian. This day we noticed acres and acres of tea plantations. They were beautiful and made us feel like we were in Myanmar or Sri Lanka (not that we had been to the latter) but it certainly reminded me of the plantations high in the Burmese mountains. We also tried Koolocheh, which is a delicious warm sweet biscuit made with walnuts and sugar and probably other things that we are definitely going to research when we get home. The city of Fuman is famous for it and our guy who made ours was from Fuman. Our guide Mr Zandi only got us the best stuff on this trip!

tea growing on hillside

From here we climbed to a staggering 2,000m above sea level high above the snow line where we had really one of the most memorable travel experience of our lives!

Olesbalangah

This was absolutely one of the more surreal experiences for me. We came to Iran with so many pre conceptions and they were all blown away in the space of about 30 minutes. From the craziness of the Caspian Sea flats around the city of Masal (and a delicious feed of Caspian Sea fish), we climbed to 2km above seas level. As we were getting closer and closer to the snow line it dawned on me that our guide planned to get as high into the snow as possible! What a legend. The roads started to become wet and we saw patches of snow around us. We kept climbing and 5 minutes later were were just surrounded by golden late afternoon alpine light, slipping on icy roads and pushing ever higher. Next came a terrifying moment we will never forget.

Our Iranian made Peugeot finally couldn’t make it any further up the icy road, the tyres were slipping like crazy. Driver Saman stopped and put the hand brake on saying “chains chains”. All good, we need to put the chains on. Mr Zandi was in the passenger seat telling us the same thing. Before Saman got out, the car moved slightly and the hand brake grabbed. Then another tiny slip and grab. Saman pulled the hand brake tight as he could and hopped out to open the boot. The car slipped again, again and again and all of a sudden we were moving backwards down an icy road towards a sheer drop. Zandi, in the passenger seat reached down urgently to hit the brake with his hand but couldn’t reach it!!!! Fuuuuuck – I was about to hit sherees seat belt button and push her out her door when bam! We stopped. I looked out the back window through my sweaty face and saw Saman standing there smoking a cigarette with his typical cheeky and warm grin and did the Iranian blink they do which sort of makes you feel like they are saying “all good – I got you”. He had stuck a rock under the wheels and I think he had planned to do that all along. It was such a terrifying moment with such relief that we all started laughing hysterically and enjoyed being alive in such an epic place! Wow – makes me nervous even writing about it.

We hung about up here (our car got the furtherest up the mountain than any other car! Even beat a prado!!) for about half an hour. The only other people were really some young Iranians also just doing the same thing. The young women had taken off their Hijabs, and you could really share in the total freedom you felt up here so high above the rest of Iran. Above the traffic, above the waste, and for them, far away from any police and the strict rules of this country. It was a beautiful afternoon we will never forget.

That night we stayed in a cabin in the mountains with Saman and Zandi. Being so tired, our first thoughts were “OMG, really we are staying in this? It is fucking freezing up here I don’t think we can do this”. At this point Saman looks at us with a big smile and says “Very good!?”. Haha well if it was good enough for Saman then it was good enough for us! At this point, the guy who normally lived in it came in and in quick Farsi discussed all sorts of things with our guide and driver. He seemed to be moving his stuff out so we could stay. Apparently he was going to stay with a neighbour but we didn’t see any other residents here! He took the small tv out, and I thought it would be because he wanted to watch it next door but then he returned with a bigger tv! I asked if I could swap my phone for a better one too but alas, no. I thought maybe this guy was on weed, but when he started pulling apart the kitchen looking for his stash of “something special” it all clicked! 30 minutes later in the dark we saw him coming down the mountain with a load of wood and an axe – he had been out in zero degrees and had chopped down one of the trees for us! He was hilarious this guy!

This was all such a memorable experience. That night we were blessed with clear skies and I did some astrophotgraphy. I never dreamed I could get photos like these, and especially not in the Middle East! Though I would personally DEFINITELY classify this northern  region as Central Asia. It is way more like rural Georgia, or Kyrgyzstan than it is even the rest of Iran (based only on our experiences anyway). On the surface this is how it feels to us.

The next day we were up early for sunrise (well a good hour or two before thanks to the chatty driver) which was incredible and then we were off to Kashan! An historical city that blew us away and made us feel like we were in that ancient Persia from Aladdin. It is a popular place for Iranians too and we could see why.

Oh! And before I go, we also went up to the Caspian Sea! This was awesome for us because we felt totally reconnected with our big world trip of 2016. We had originally planned on crossing this (or going around) but had ran out of time. It was a pretty cool feeling to only be a couple of hundred km from where we had been on that massive adventure. Of course I had to go swimming 😂 too.

3/4 of the gang!
Contemplation of where we had been in 2016 and where we are now
Freeeezing!!

thanks for reading!

Matt

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