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Trekking in the Alamut Valley - Dave


We wanted to go trekking in the Alamut Valley - an area of the Alborz mountains north of Tehran. Needed a guide. So we headed up there, phoned a guy in the guidebook, and 2 hours later we were sitting in a car with Mehdi, a crazy guy who was describing what we would get using his vocabulary of 200 words, in between bursts of pidgin-opera. And he really made out trek memorable, with his appreciation of nature (in between shouts of day-oh), knowledge of all the mountain herbs, and friendship with people in the villages on the way. Each time we got to a village we would stop at a friend's home, where we'd eat the BEST home-made ewes cheese, yoghurt, hearty soup and freshly baked bread from the special bread-oven-hut. Mehdi was also pretty adept at finding a way for us up the loose shingle slopes in the pitch dark, and borrowing people's fires when his gas stove didnt work.

We hiked for 3 days from the Alamut village of Garmarud, over a mountain pass and down through lush valleys to Yuj, towards the Caspian Sea. We really saved the best til last as the views were stunning, ranging from alpine style pastures and leafy villages with their flowers and orchards, to barren rock landscapes and towering rocky peaks, waterfalls and 100m canyons that we had to traverse above. And the stars - wow! These are villages where although roads are slowly starting to connect them up, there are still villages only accessible on foot, with donkeys as the prime mode of transport.

The Alamut Valley is famous for its Castles of the Assassins - A guy formed a feared cult in which he recruited people to kidnap & rob in return for a place in Paradise. He showed them visions of paradise to prove it - gardens and maidens...oh and he got them stoned first on the local whacky baccy. Hashish-ians they were known as, which eventually became the word 'assassin'.

During the trek Rachel became 'Boy-Girl' since she replaced her headscarf with a hat when on the trail, and I became 'Mr Sugar' for my sweet tooth. Mehdi warned us about the wildlife: "Wolf come children you soup" (we'll get fed to the wolf's cubs), and ordered us about: "Go you water cold come" (please fetch some cold water), and helped us out: "Me come you t-shirt go here" (I've taken your washing down and put it here).

By the time we reached Yuj, we really didnt want the trek to end, and could have done another week

Posted by rachndave 06:44 Archived in Iran Tagged mountains Comments (2)

Photos Up


I've uploaded a bunch of photos from Iran, take a look.

Posted by rachndave 06:42 Archived in Iran Tagged photos Comments (0)

Closing impressions of Iran


We arrived in Damascus last night and are having a bit of an admin day today. Dave is registering us for Glastonbury next to me, we've just booked flights to Malawi (woop), going to the post office next. Oh the excitement.

So here are my final impressions of Iran and a few miscellaneous observations i've jotted down

1. Travelling round the country has been a breeze. Mountains, deserts, lakes and cities all connected by a fantastic and cheap transport network.
2. An obsession with shoes. Shoe shops are *everywhere*. Shoe menders and cleaners are everywhere. Every hotel room provides you with an abundance of plastic sandals on a rack. Every home has shoes outside the door and inside sandals outside the bathroom. There are shoes in many toilets. Even in the airport as we were leaving there was a shelf of these sandals next to the metal detectors and I have no idea why.
3. Mystery switches. Every hotel room we have ever stayed in has at least one switch that does nothing. Every. single. one.
4. There are huge piles of watermelons everywhere
5. Squat toilets and water hoses really werent designed for women and require a unexpected amount of dexterity/timing
6. We have a favourite non alcoholic beer called Heyday, which is a very refreshing lemon-meets-malt flavour. There are other brands but this one is the best. I wonder if you can get it in London somewhere.
7. Standard hotel checkout at 2pm. This should be an international standard!
8. Shops here are very specialist. Shoe shops only sell shoes (not laces, nor odor eaters). Cosmetic shops only sell cosmetics (not hairbands). This makes it quite tricky to buy specific things when you dont know where your type of shop lives.
9. There are butterflies everywhere. You cant be outside anywhere without a beautiful butterfly in sight. I resolve to plant butterfly friendly plants in my garden when I get one.
10. Everything is covered in the manufacturers plastic. All office-like chairs for certain wherever you encounter them like ticket offices or internet cafes - but usually they are broken :) I have seen clocks on the wall and even remote controls wrapped in plastic.
11. The people and the government are not in any way in alignment either in outlook or demeanor. This makes people very self conscious about what we as visitors think, and how iranians are percieved back home. They are bothered. Of course we have only really spoken with people who are interested in tourists so perhaps that is a biased view but we havent encountered any attitude to the contrary.
12. It feels as if everything is about 30 years behind the UK. fashion, decor, attitudes, most equipment and services. This actually gives me hope.
13. It turns out I can't sit crossed legged for more than 15 minutes and it is surprisingly difficult to eat from the plastic table sheet on the floor when you sit sidesaddle. Also see point number 5 - i really need to go back to yoga classes when I get back.
14. Everywhere we go there is building work going on. In the countryside this is done by teams of men by hand. This gives every town a living feel to it.
15. Family is everything and they really get on with each other. Not only that but as a visitor you feel like one of the family too.
16. The country is a place where people *live*. It's hard to explain this point but it's connected to point 15. People in London *work* and *play* for example rather than live - the living stuff is what happens in between work and play i think. But here people here live for and with each other, and even the work people are doing feels like a way just to support their home lives where they can be with their families and in their communities. Perhaps that is because it is an old culture, perhaps it is the islamic cultural influence - that i'm not so sure of without experiencing other islamic cultures. Whatever the reason it makes the place feel unshakable and is a core atmosphere everywhere we pass through.

Anyway I'm sure more will occur to me as we continue but for now it's goodbye Iran, hello Syria.

Posted by rachndave 04:14 Archived in Iran Tagged final_thoughts observations Comments (3)

The chuckling mosque of Baledeh


Continuing our road journey back to Tehran via the winding North Iranian mountain roads brought us to the pretty little valley town of Baledeh (population 9000). Baledeh is the only village in the area apparently to have accommodation or shops. And it also has a proper river and a castle: bonus.

The accommodation turned out to be a blanket on a carpeted floor, with a cold shower (but very clean) but we had our rollmats and sleeping bags and at an eventual agreed 15 pounds a night we werent complaining too much. To the castle!

A hour's hard scramble to the top rewarded us with some of the prettiest and greenest sights i've seen so far. Lush green plantations spreading out from the nestled town and into the two valleys either side of the ridge on top of which we stood. I sat here for a good half hour imagining how it would be to manage my dream farm and live this simple life when my daydream was broken by the sound of singing from the mosque. Not too unusual this month; until the howling started. This month is one of mourning for one of the decendents of the prophet Muhammad and every day, several times a day, there is a half hour sung story broadcast over the local mosque's tannoy system - at first I thought this was over the top outpouring of grief until it becaume clear that the singer wasn't crying but laughing, and you could also make out the cheers and laughter of people in the background. The singer did his best to recover his composure and finish the song but for the next half hour he would regularly break down into giggles while his friends mocked and laughed along. Sitting on a rock at the top of this lonely beautiful ridge as the sun dipped behind the hills and laughing along has been a highlight of my trip so far :)

We picked our way down the rocky and wandered round the pastures, through herds of sheep and back into the town feeling like we could live in a place like this.

The next morning from our high window we watched a sombre march through the town with men in black beating themselves with little fly whips of "tinsel" while drummers slowly drummed and singers sang from speakers on the back of a truck. A slow motion Notting Hill Carnival if you like on what was not far after Bank Holiday Monday. This day was also the day on which the Koran was given to Muhammad - I think it's a shame that a people choose to put on a public marches in rememberence of the death of one of it's prophets rather than celebrate the birth of it's entire religion. Understand this and I think we might understand something of the psyche.

We wandered along the river through more lush irrigated mountain fringed farmland but eventually had to make a move on. We were desperate to hitch a ride on the back of a pick up truck after our failure to do so in Kordkuy and soon had a team of people bartering on our behalf with local trucks driving along the one road through the town. Unfortunately today was a holiday and most people were staying local and even the taxi's were asking a bit too much. In the end one of our haggling helpers agreed to drive us part of the way where we might be able to pick up a truck on the main road. By this time, and after many very similar conversations, my Farsi was rudimentary enough to hold a pretty decent although noun based conversation all the way there and this was one of the most pleasurable journeys we've had.

Unfortunately we didn't have a chance to find a truck after we were dropped off because we had stood weighing up our options for not 2 minutes when an english speaking mother and family stopped who were headed to our final destination and insisted we joined them. They had been spending the holiday picnicking by the sea with their two young boys and we made a few more picnic stops en route as is the tradition here :)

Late at night we made it to Tehran to meet up with Masoud and plan our three day hiking trip to the Alamut Valley in the Alborz mountains at the very northern edge of Iran where it is rainiest, coolest and supposed to be almost like the UK in spring. I can tell you I was looking forward to leaving the car behind for a while. All this bread eating and sitting around in cars is not giving me the beach body I was hoping to achieve before Lake of Stars

Posted by rachndave 03:16 Archived in Iran Tagged religion mountain driving Comments (0)

Towering sucesses

The guidebook describes a road of seemingly unending hairpins skirting the edge of steep edged valleys and forests. Nearby were the intriguing sounding sights of West Radken tower and the tower of Gonbad which might have been built by Nasa as prototype brick rocket ships. So we caught the overnight train to Gorgan and planned to travel back overland on the winding roads.

Gonbad tower really was a marvel (despite it's slightly inconguous placement by the main road through town). I was the only person there (Dave was taking it easy back in the hotel after having a brush with a gammy Tim/Paul-leg since being bitten by the flies at Lake Gaha) and had 20 minutes playing with the echos inside the tower before heading back on the hot crowded minibus but feeling very proud of myself for navigating my way there armed only with the phrasebook. I had wanted to visit the nearby pagan graveyard whose graves are marked by 2 foot hight penises carved from rock but it was a further 3 hour detour. I urge you to look for pictures on the internet - if you get caught using dodgy search terms you can blame me.

We headed to a small town to enquire about 4 wheel drives along the steep winding mountain roads to the tower at West Radken. Unfortunately des to Ramadan anyone travelling less than 3 hours should be back home by midday (I should verify this - it sound like a strange rule) and so we couldnt find anyone willing to take us on the back of their trucks. We were adopted by the local pharmasist and english teachers - Sobar and Razar - who found their friend - Ali the baker - to drive us there and back.

Neither the teachers or the baker had been to this tower so the teachers cancelled their classes and came with us. The tower sits in the middle of a beautiful valley with farmland in the base. We stayed here for a small picnic and then turned back along the road winding through the forests and past tiny "summer" migratory villages which are too snowy to spend winter and trying not to think about the drops to either side (fortunately Ali was the most obviously cautious driver i think we've had since we've been here)

Sobar's father was having a Ramazan fast breaking gathering at his with all the family and we were kindly invited to join them. But not before Sabar's wife also prepared us a full meal as well :) On the way to Sabor's fathers house we managed to squeeze in a trip to Ali's traditional bakery with a hand built enormous clay oven. *And* a quick visit to the Caspian seaside to watch the sunset. The water looked like mercury it was the perfect light.

We ate another full meal with 20 members of the family - i was privileged to be invited into the kitchen where the women could remove their hejab and chadors and lounged on the floor or played with the many children. We left with a feeling yet again that these bustling families are the heart of village life - and feeling extremely full!

Posted by rachndave 02:03 Archived in Iran Tagged driving family Comments (1)

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